March 9, 2008

It's party time

At 10:30 on Saturday morning a group of friends and fans got together to watch Winthrop play UNC Asheville on national television in the championship game of the Big South Tournament.

There was food and mimosas were the drink of the day for the early morning get together.

And for the next couple of hours, the friends enjoyed watching the Eagles carve up the Bulldogs 66-48 to win their fourth straight Big South tournament.

The party was in Wichita, Kan. Gregg Marshall, the former coach of the Eagles, was the host.

"We were all jacked up," Marshall said by phone Sunday afternoon, as he sat courtside watching high school players and hoping to find some nuggets to help him turn around the program at Wichita State.

"It was a great, great performance," said Marshall, who coached Michael Jenkins, Chris Gaynor and Taj McCullough for three seasons before leaving for the Midwest last April.

He might be a couple thousand miles away, but the connection to this Winthrop team is still strong.

"I'm so proud of them," Marshall said.

Even on TV, Marshall said he could see what was unfolding in the Justice Center. He said the Bulldogs' Bryan Smithson "looked nervous" during pregame introductions and played like it. Marshall enjoyed Mantoris Robinson's lockdown defense on Smithson, Jenkins' job on K.J. Garland, the play of Andy Buechert against 7-7 Kenny George, the way freshman point guard Justin Burton handled the team when Gaynor got in foul trouble, McCullough's late-game dunk that became an ESPN highlight.

"We need six or seven players just like them," Marshall said.

He particularly enjoyed Jenkins' 11-for-19, 33-point game.

"If he'd shot that way last year," Marshall said, "we might have won the whole thing."

He talked like a coach who was on the sidelines with the Eagles on Saturday even though he was sitting at home in Wichita, his season over after a first-round loss on Thursday in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.

"I hope the people in Kansas watched that game," Marshall said, "so they'll see what we need."

Marshall wasn't around to coach the Eagles, but he knew they'd probably be pretty good this year, knew Randy Peele would do the job as the head coach. On Sunday, he rattled off the names of the players who return next year and said "they just might win it again."

But that's next year.

Time to party

It was party time in Rock Hill on Saturday, too, although the celebration had to wait until the Eagles took care of business and got back to town.

Coaches, players and some of the Eagles' most hardcore fans, who might have been doubters two weeks ago, showed up to celebrate.

The coaches got to relax for one night, no tape to watch, no scouting reports to prepare for the first time since early last fall.

And the players got to enjoy the handshakes, pats on the back and whatever comes with making the long run to a championship.

Jenkins, the Big South Tournament MVP in the first 40-minute game of his career, and Gaynor still had the victory nets around their necks six hours after the game ended.

"This one was the best," Gaynor had said on Saturday afternoon, "because we did it for De'Andre."

De'Andre Adams, who died last May after a car crash, was never far from their thoughts all season and his named danced through the Justice Center on Saturday.

But Jenkins, Gaynor, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris, the seniors, could wrap their arms around this title and squeeze, because it was theirs.

"Coach Marshall had left and we'd lost three great seniors, and people were thinking we couldn't do it again," Gaynor said. "But we won this one and it kind of shows we had a lot to do with those last couple of championships."

And now, the wait for another party begins. This week will be a time to recharge their batteries, work on fundamentals and try to stay sharp.

On Sunday, about 6:30 p.m., it will be time to party again, when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee announces the 65-team field.

The Eagles have been through this before, too, but it's one party that never, ever gets old.

At the very least, Winthrop's Big South win requires the reworking of some of those Internet brackets that had UNC Asheville penciled in as the league's tournament representative.

As of Friday, before the Big South final, had the Bulldogs a No. 16 seed playing No. 1 UCLA in Anaheim, and had UNCA heading to North Little Rock, Ark., as a No. 16 against No. 1 Memphis. Those matchups could make the NIT, which the Bulldogs will play in, sound pretty good.

A year ago, after playing a tough schedule, winning some key road games, building a decent resume and running the table in the Big South, the Eagles were concerned about a good seed. They wound up with a No. 11 and were disappointed. But they made the most of it, beating Notre Dame in the opening round in Spokane, Wash., one of just three opening-round surprises.

Between now and Sunday, there will be speculation about the Eagles' seed. The Eagles won't be a No. 11. Best guess is they could be a 13, 14, 15. It's hard to picture the Eagles, with wins over Miami, Georgia Tech, Old Dominion and Akron, as a No. 16.

Marshall guessed "a 15," but added, "once they get there, anything can happen. They can win again."

A week ago there were folks, including those operating Internet sites, who said the Eagles didn't need to worry about packing, other than packing up the balls and uniforms until next year. Having lost to UNC Asheville twice during the regular season and having to play the Bulldogs on their home court appeared to be, in some eyes, too big a mountain to climb.

"We lost three good players from last year," Peele said, "and this whole year we had a bull's-eye on our back. I thought the whole year was payback. So, I can't be more happy for our seniors.

"A week ago was a pretty sad day. To come back the way we did speaks volumes for these kids."

Peele got an idea of what kind of team he had when the Eagles played in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands in mid-November. They beat Illinois-Chicago and Georgia Tech before losing to Baylor in the finals.

Also in the field were Marshall and Wichita State, Notre Dame, Charlotte and Monmouth.

"I knew we had something special," Peele said. "It was a fantastic field, and we were one of the best teams there."

While there might be a tendency to think the Eagles will be relieved just to make it to the NCAA tournament, that won't be the case. These aren't the early days of Marshall's program when getting there was the goal.

After playing Gonzaga close in 2005, Tennessee in 2006 and beating Notre Dame last March, the object isn't to just get there.

It's get there and advance.

The party on the Justice Center floor Saturday was just getting started when Peele said, "let's go win the next one."

Where the Eagles go is anyone's guess, just like last March, when Spokane became a downer for fans who wanted to travel with the team but couldn't make it cross-country.

Jenkins, smiling the smile of an MVP, said he wanted to go "somewhere close and warm so our fans can be there."

Anyone for a party in Tampa?

Where will Eagles fly?

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will announce seedings, sites and pairings on Sunday. Here's a look at where Big South Conference champion Winthrop could go.

First Round Sites

March 20-22 March 21-23

Anaheim, Calif. Birmingham, Ala.

Denver, Colo. N. Little Rock, Ark.

Omaha, Neb. Raleigh, N.C.

Washington, D.C. Tampa, Fla.


March 27-29 March 28-30

Charlotte Detroit

Phoenix Houston

Final Four

April 5-7

San Antonio

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