February 28, 2009

Eagles enter Big South tourney with big victory over Coastal

Winthrop opens Big South Conference tournament play on Tuesday, and the Eagles won't be favored to win it for a fifth straight time.

Winthrop opens Big South Conference tournament play on Tuesday, and the Eagles won't be favored to win it for a fifth straight time.

But after Saturday's 70-50 blitz of Coastal Carolina in their final regular-season game, the Eagles' fifth straight win, they at least have the attention of the rest of the league.

The Eagles (11-18, 9-9 Big South) pounded the Chanticleers (11-19, 5-13) on the boards 46-37, held them to 24 percent shooting in the second half and won the way Winthrop teams have always won in the league.

The Eagles, depending on the results from Saturday night's games, will be on the road at Liberty or UNC Asheville on Tuesday as either the No. 5 or No. 6 seed. Coastal will go in as either the No. 7 or No. 8 seed and play either Radford or VMI.

Winthrop coach Randy Peele said it "doesn't matter" who it is.

"We know we're going on the road," he said. "Our style is built to win on the road. Now, it's down to one and done."

After a shaky start on Saturday -- Senior Day -- the Eagles got things together and took care of their end of the seeding bargain and kept the end-of-season momentum going. Since Jan. 3, the Eagles are 10-8.

The Eagles missed 13 of their first 16 shots and fell behind 19-6 midway through the first half. But an 11-1 run got them back in the game and they led 28-27 at halftime.

They broke it open in the second half, going on a 13-1 run that pushed the lead to 50-37, and by the five-minute mark they led by 19. They were more aggressive offensively in the second half, driving the ball into the lane, which led to free throws.

The Eagles hit 20 of 26 foul shot for the game, with all 20 makes coming in the second half. The 26 attempts were one off their season high in league play.

In building that early lead, Coastal hit eight of its first 15 shots. The Eagles got down to some serious defense and held Coastal to 10-for-39 shooting the final 30 minutes. Coastal was 7-for-29 in the second half, the second straight game Winthrop has held an opponent to single-digit field goals in the final 20 minutes.

"Our defense isn't where I want it to be," Peele said, "but right now our halfcourt defense is better than anyone in our league."

And it's coming from a lot of different players, including 6-foot-8 sophomore George Valentine, who continued his hot late-season play. He scored nine points and yanked 11 rebounds. He has averaged more than 10 points and nine rebounds and hit 19 of 22 shots the past four games.

"It's great to win five in a row," Valentine said. "The guards have been getting me the ball and the big men, too. I've been trying to do the little things, and it's working for me right now.

"We're the hottest team in the Big South."

Valentine and Mantoris Robinson, who added 15 points and six rebounds, did the defensive work on Coastal's Joseph Harris. Harris, who had 10 straight double-doubles coming in, had another, but this one was a mortal 12 points and 11 rebounds. They kept him from driving to the bucket, and after he had four rebounds in the first five minutes, kept him relatively quiet on the glass.

The Eagles shut down the Chants on the perimeter, too, holding Dexter Moore and Mario Edwards to a combined 5-for-25 shooting and 19 points.

After the quick start, the Chants looked like a tired team. They played at Charleston Southern on Thursday night and had lost seven of their last nine games, six by five or fewer points. They played again without point guard Mario Sisinni and that meant Edwards had to play 36 minutes against Winthrop's defense.

"That's where is showed," Coastal coach Cliff Ellis said, but he pointed to one stat as the difference.

"Rebounds, rebounds, rebounds, and you can underline that," he said. "Rebounds gave them the opportunity to stay in it early and build on it in the second half.

"They may not shoot it great, but they've got a lot of players and that can be a factor this time of year. They can wear you down with how physical they are."

Valentine, Charles Corbin and Chris Malcolm combined for 23 points and 23 rebounds in the middle, more than enough to offset Harris.

With tournament play ahead, Peele left the Winthrop Coliseum fired up.

"Isn't it great this time of year?" he said. "That's how I look at it. Some teams right now can't wait to play their last game. That's not us."

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