Winthrop and High Point, two teams that opened the conference regular season with a game that came down to one last shot, play in the Big South tournament semifinals at 6 p.m. today at UNC Asheville's Justice Center to see which team gets one more shot at a championship.
It will be the team that was supposed to win the Big South -- High Point -- against the team that's dominated the league for seven of the past nine seasons -- three-time defending champion Winthrop.
The two have met only twice in the tournament, the last in the 2006 semifinals won by the Eagles 77-65. The Eagles have dominated the Panthers, winning 21 of 23 games in the series.
On Jan. 12, Winthrop went to High Point and lost 62-61, when Antwon Harris' near point-blank shot with a second left bounced off the rim. The Panthers, picked just ahead of Winthrop to win the league in the preseason balloting, staged an on-court celebration worthy of what will happen Saturday should they make the finals and win.
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The Eagles expect to see that celebration again. They saw it in person, then saw it again when they were preparing for the rematch on Feb. 9, a game they won 62-54.
"I think coach (Paul) Molinari will bring it out again," Harris said, after the Eagles beat Radford on Tuesday. "It will be to remind us we can't take these guys for granted."
And Harris said going on the road to play in the tournament is no big deal.
"We have no fear," he said.
Winthrop (20-11) is the No. 2 seed and High Point (17-13), which made a late-season run, is No. 3. In tonight's 8:30 p.m. semifinal, top-seeded UNC Asheville (22-8) takes on No. 4 Liberty (16-15). It's the first time since 1998-99 the top seeds have reached the semifinals.
Tonight's winners meet at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday for the title. If Asheville wins, the final will be played in the 1,100-seat Justice Center, but if the Bulldogs lose, it moves to the home court of the highest remaining seed.
The Eagle would love to play one more game at home, but it's the time of year when looking past the game in front of you could mean packing away the uniform sooner than expected.
It's also a time of second chances. Last week, Winthrop lost its chance to win the regular season and host the tournament by dropping a 63-50 game at home to UNC Asheville on Senior Day. Their play in the 76-45 win over Radford suggests the Eagles have moved on.
"We looked at that game," coach Randy Peele said, "and we gave up some transition baskets we don't normally give up. That was a four- or five-possession game.
"But I told our guys, Southern Illinois lost on Senior Day. Clemson just beat Maryland at Maryland on Senior Day. Those things happen.
"Right now, toughness is important and I like the toughness we showed (against Radford)."
The Eagles beat Radford with their trademark defense, by shooting 49 percent and by getting 40 points from the bench. The bench was so good, starters Taj McCullough (eight), Michael Jenkins (10), Chris Gaynor (22) and Mantoris Robinson (14) played well under their normal minutes per game.
Harris was one of those doing the job off the bench, getting 14 points and three rebounds in 20 minutes. He'd played more than 20 minutes once since logging 28 in that Jan. 12 game at High Point.
Redshirt freshman Byron Faison scored 12 points in a season-high 28 minutes. He excited the crowd and his teammates by throwing down a spectacular one-hand dunk on a fast break. Junior college transfer Andy Beuchert yanked seven rebounds in 13 minutes and freshman George Valentine had six points and eight rebounds in a season-high 32 minutes.
"We've got some talented young players," Jenkins said. "They know coming off the bench they might not get many minutes so they try and make the most of them. They're growing up."
Harris said, "they're getting better every day and it's showing now."
That bench could be the difference against a High Point team that has a talented first five but isn't as deep.
Arizona Reid averages 24 points and 11.1 rebounds, Mike Jefferson averages 13.1 points and Eugene Harris 12.2. No one else averages more than 5.7.
In the first game this season, that trio combined for 53 points and 12-of-25 3-pointers, with Jefferson dumping in 23. The bench didn't score a point.
In the second game, they had just 38 points and missed 20 of 33 shots.
It will take an effort better than that second game to beat a High Point team that seems to have found itself with three straight wins.
But, Peele said, that's what should happen this time of year.
"It'll be tough," Peele said, "and I'd be shocked if it was any other way. It's March Madness. It's a great time of year. I just want us to be confident."
BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT
No. 1 UNC Asheville 87, No. 8 Charleston Southern 63
No. 2 Winthrop 76, No. 7 Radford 45
No. 3 High Point 59, No. 6 Coastal Carolina 56
No. 4 Liberty 103, No. 5 VMI 88
at UNC Asheville
High Point (17-13) vs. Winthrop (20-11), 6 p.m.
Liberty (16-15) at UNC Asheville (22-8), 8:30 p.m.
Saturday's finals, 11:30 a.m.
at highest remaining seed