January 16, 2009

Eagles pay the price for discouraging defeat

Just after midnight Thursday morning, while most folks in Rock Hill were snug in their beds with covers pulled up to their chins to fight off the cold, Winthrop's basketball team was in the Winthrop Coliseum looking for some fire.

Just after midnight Thursday morning, while most folks in Rock Hill were snug in their beds with covers pulled up to their chins to fight off the cold, Winthrop's basketball team was in the Winthrop Coliseum looking for some fire.

Less than three hours earlier on the same floor, the Eagles had been drubbed 64-49 by Gardner-Webb. It was Winthrop's fourth loss of the season on a floor where the Eagles have been all but unbeatable the past five years.

Any team walking into the Winthrop Coliseum in recent seasons had known that in order to win they'd need more than their "A game." They'd need the "A game" and probably some divine intervention to beat a Winthrop team that played with a "you ain't beatin' us in our house" swagger.

Gardner-Webb, a good, but not great, team, played for 40 minutes like they'd helped build the place, while the Eagles played like they were just visiting.

The Bulldogs shot almost 60 percent to take a 16-point lead at halftime, a lead the Eagles barely dented in the second half. The Bulldogs got every loose ball that mattered, every contested rebound. They put on an exhibition of cutting, passing and sharing the ball. They shot the ball like the rim was big as a bathtub.

The Bulldogs schooled the Eagles on how the game should be played.

While the memory was still fresh, Winthrop coach Randy Peele hoped to score some points with his team, points about toughness and commitment, playing with some heart.

The 90-minute practice wasn't Midnight Madness.

More like Midnight Misery.

"The purpose of this practice," Peele told his players, "is to get our culture right in terms of who we are. We aren't tough enough. I can't stand a lack of effort, toughness and heart.

"It ain't about what you look like. They (Gardner-Webb) don't pass the look test, but they kicked our (blank)."

The players, standing in a line along the baseline, kept their focus on Peele. No one spoke. They listened. Peele hoped they heard, because there is a difference.

Peele, his voice rising, said he was going to be committed to players who showed some pop. He singled out Mantoris Robinson, who was the one Eagle who seemed to believe the game mattered. Peele said he played with "big-time heart."

Then Peele warned his team.

"I'm going to find out what side of the fence you're on," he said. "You're either going to be on this side (with me) or you're going to be off the fence."

But his most emphatic message was this.

"You," he screamed, "are not being Winthrop!"

And with that the players were run through a series of drills not for the weak of mind or heart.

There was the one called "cowboy." Peele had the ball, each player closed out and took a charge. "We haven't taken one in three games," Peele reminded them. He rolled the ball to the other end of the floor. Each player ran it down. They were expected to dive on it.

Jonathan Rice, a walk-on who hasn't played a minute since the first game of the year, probably led the team in floor burns.

Then came the three-on-three block-out drill, appropriate since the Bulldogs had smacked the Eagles 44-31 on the glass. Each segment of the drill lasted until one team scored or the defensive team got the ball. The drill didn't stop even if the ball sailed by press row or halfway down the tunnel toward the rest room. No matter. They ran it down.

The Gold team beat Garnet 15-14. Gold ran eight lengths of the court in 46 seconds. One player failed to make it. They ran again, four lengths in 22 seconds. Players were bending over and grabbing their shorts.

"Stand up," Peele yelled.

Then came five-on-five full court, a shooting drill called "Pacer" that was repeated four, five times because Peele didn't like the effort. Then a drill on closing out to the ball on the perimeter and boxing out.

At 1:29 a.m., Peele called his players to the baseline. For 90 minutes they'd gone a lot harder than they'd played for 40 a couple of hours before.

"You," he said, "have got to understand what this program is built on."

He reminded them of the need to concentrate every minute on the floor, that 34 or 35 minutes aren't enough. It takes 40. He scolded them for "shutting down mentally." He reminded them "we can't lose games at home."

Against Gardner-Webb, he said, "we got what we deserved."

Some might call the midnight practice an act of desperation by a coach who sees a season slipping away, one who's wondering if his team is really buying into what he's selling.

Perhaps to a degree it is. While the Big South Conference season is just a third of the way finished, the implications are there. At 2-4 in the league, the Eagles are a game out of the cellar or a couple of wins from third. A top-four finish nets a first-round home game for the conference tournament. But because Presbyterian isn't eligible for the tournament, the team that finishes last won't make the tournament at all.

Right now, the Eagles are on that fence where they could fall either way.

When you're 3-12, you try anything that might turn on the light in the minds of the players. When you're coaching 18-, 19-year-old kids, you have to be part psychologist, and there are days when that part is more important than coaching.

The ultimate message of the practice was what Peele said at the end.

"The only ones who can turn this around is us," he said. "Your approach is the most important part.

"I want to see a team with a chip on its shoulder, one that can find a way to turn this thing around."

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