This is an oral history of the greatest sports moment in Winthrop University’s history.
The school’s 2006-07 men’s basketball team entered that season’s NCAA Tournament ranked No. 22 in the country and 28-4. The Eagles drew Notre Dame and the rest, well, take a read for yourself:
It’s impossible to tell the story of Winthrop’s win over Notre Dame without first returning to its heart-wrenching loss to Tennessee in the first round of the tournament in Greensboro in 2006:
Torrell Martin, senior standout on the 2007 team: We should have won it the year before against Tennessee when Lofton hit the shot in the corner right in my face that knocked us out. That was one of my best moments because that fueled everything.
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Chris Gaynor, junior point guard on the ‘07 team and the winningest player in Winthrop history: Who knew that 3 seconds could leave that much of an imprint on your life? That shot, man, every time you think of it, that’s the epitome of the word ‘dagger.’ So I think going into 2007 a lot of us had a lot of built-up anger and frustration and we were just ready to take it out on whoever we played that year.
One other happening spurred Winthrop’s incredible 2006-07 season: Marshall agreed to take over as head coach at College of Charleston, only for a last second change of heart:
Dr. Anthony DiGiorgio, longtime former Winthrop president: It was about 11:30 at night, my wife told me I had a phone call and it was Coach Marshall. So I talked with him and after some initial conversation he indicated that he felt like he’d made a major mistake and that he wanted to stay at Winthrop and would he be able to come back?
I met with Gregg and the team initially, laying the context for the members of the team, who had mixed feelings at that particular moment. They had felt very sad that the coach that had brought them along was leaving. I think inside they were very happy to have him back but, you know, game faces, they weren’t gonna show that right away. At 1 o’clock we started the press conference, I said I had some news that we had a new coach for the Winthrop University 2007 men’s basketball team, and it’s Gregg Marshall. And that began what was just a seminal season in Winthrop’s history.
He realized after the full experience down there, and meeting everybody, including the team, that he had both a special situation at Winthrop and that he had a very special team here. I think he knew that intellectually before, but I think after the experience and the emotion and all the rest, I think he really felt it very, very deeply. That was the basis of his late night call to me.
Gary McCann, Hall of Fame former sports reporter for The Herald: Would they have been as good if Gregg had not come back? When he turned down the College of Charleston job there wasn’t so much pressure on the players as there was on him to make sure that team succeeded. When he came back, from Day One there was a focus on that season unlike any other, that I witnessed anyway.
Winthrop rolled through the regular season, winning 28 games, including all 14 in the Big South; the big question on Selection Sunday was how would the committee view the Eagles’ accomplishments?
Gregg Marshall, former Winthrop coach: We had gotten so close. That Tennessee game was certainly a game we could have won. Even the year before, the Gonzaga game, we could have won that too. We didn’t make a play down the stretch. So, to come so close our whole team knew that we were a capable team and we had great potential, but we just had to finish. And this was an opportunity, with by far the best seed we would have gotten up to that point with an 11 seed, it gave us just a better opportunity to advance in the tournament.
Gaynor: My reaction was ‘let’s get over this hump.’ I really didn’t know too much about Notre Dame that year besides that they were in a tough conference at the time and they had tremendous guard play. And I knew they had a couple of guys that would probably go pro.
McCann: By the time we got to the end of the regular season and going into the tournament, people started talking about them as the next George Mason. Normally when you have a team like this you throw around the “Cinderella” term. Well nobody was talking about them in those terms, they were talking about them as a real, live NCAA Tournament threat.
Traveling to Spokane, Wash., wasn’t a challenge for an experienced group of Winthrop players, many of whom had played in at least two consecutive NCAA Tournaments:
Phillip Williams, senior forward on the ‘07 team: I remember being in our first one in Arizona for the team shootaround or whatever (in 2005), as we were walking up to the court they announced ‘and now taking the court, Winthrop Eagles from the Big South Conference.’ They said something like that and everybody was kind of like, ‘oh wow.’ And I think our band was there in the stands and it was like, ‘people are here to watch us?’ It was kind of a shock. So the third time around, hearing your name, okay. We had experience, we knew what to expect.
Gaynor: We were led by a group of veteran guys that knew how to have fun and then turn it up when it was game time. Torrell was the ringleader of everything and guys liked to freestyle rap all the time so we did that just about the whole plane ride out there. We just had a whole bunch of jokesters and there was really no room for self-pity. You better be able to laugh at yourself because everybody got picked on. We were that type of tight-knit family that nobody took it to heart.
Michael Jenkins, junior guard on the ‘07 team: One special thing from that trip was that we were being featured by Sporting News magazine with an all-access issue. It was cool to have their people following us around throughout the trip and ending up on the cover of the magazine.
Assistant coach Randy Peele was responsible for scouting Notre Dame, a boost for Winthrop given Peele’s tactical acumen:
Peele: When you get to the tournament it’s all about matchups and what people don’t realize is Notre Dame was incredibly young. Luke Harangody was a big-time player, but he was a freshman, right? A freshman. And they had a couple of other guys that were talented but young. Where it showed for them was on the defensive end. When Harangody was a senior he was an animal but at that time they weren’t great defensively. I knew going into the game they try to outscore you.
Martin: My first collegiate game versus a big team was Kentucky as a freshman in Rupp Arena with the big dogs. That was the biggest stage I ever had played on. I was like ‘it can’t get bigger than this’ and I was second-leading scorer, so in my head I was always prepared.
I just remember being really prepared. We knew all their stuff we had the coaches already scouted them. I just remember Marshall really talking well about Notre Dame and bigging up their players and I was ready to knock that down, because I didn’t like how he was talking.
Meanwhile, two reporters from The Herald decided to drive across the United State to Spokane, nearly a 3,000-mile journey:
McCann: At that point in my career I didn’t particularly enjoy flying. I would have flown if the bosses hadn’t agreed to this crazy idea that we got. I came in Monday morning and (Andrew) Dys is sitting at his desk and I said, ‘you know we can drive it.’ I think his response was, ‘what time do we leave?’ It was the most brilliant, stupid idea ever concocted by newspapermen.
When we walked into the arena for that Thursday’s practice, the Winthrop fans there that had flown out gave us a standing ovation. Only standing ovation I’ve ever received.
And Winthrop’s players tried to keep busy in Spokane, including a couple of players that decided to get haircuts:
Jeff Lahr, longtime Winthrop athletic trainer: They get up the next morning and go down to have breakfast and Gregg sees those lines in their hair. They had to go get haircuts before the game. Here’s the thing: their hair is already short. So guess who ended up having to go take them to have a haircut before the game? Fortunately there was this barbershop just down the street from the hotel. You could still sort of see it but it was mostly gone. Gregg was happy then. That was so funny that he got so upset about haircuts.
The day of the game arrived and Marshall gave a legendary speech that roused his players:
Marshall: We had heard the day prior to the game that, on the day between the games, Notre Dame had been asked to be the honorary chair or whatever you call it to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Spokane. The head marshal or whatever you call that, the people in the last float.
They didn’t like it. None of us liked it. It’s like they were assuming that they already won the game. I realize the Notre Dame Fighting Irish makes for a better story than the Winthrop Eagles in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, for sure, but still, that was some presumption going on there.
Gaynor: When he was giving that speech he was just so intense, it made everyone in that locker room surely believe everything he was saying, just because he was so passionate and he had so much confidence in us that we were gonna go out there and win.
Martin: Everybody had their own little space but then once we was together we were fired up. I kept the engine roaring, I kept that passion going so we was always geeked on another level. We just had a lot of guys… guys were just hungry. All our attitudes were like that and senior year I was the head of that giant. I was always emotional. Marshall started that and it trickled from me to everybody else that was on the court.
Jenkins: That speech Coach Marshall gave before that game, to this day, is still the best pregame speech I have ever received. That speech got me so fired up yet had me so calm. It’s hard to explain. The line I will never forget is “There will be no parade”. I definitely believed him, and still to this day I do not know if it was true or not. That speech was so powerful though that even if you knew it was not true you would have still been extremely inspired.
Marshall: I’m pretty sure that was legit, or at least that’s my recollection after all these many years.
Williams: I don’t remember his speech at all. I must have been totally focused on the game, or something. And after four years of Coach Marshall, you heard probably a hundred or 200 speeches by that point and kind of chomping at the bit just ready to go play. I remember that.
DiGiorgio: I started the tradition during that year of greeting him just before the game, shaking hands and patting him on the back and the catchphrase I used to say was ‘Gregg, go give ‘em hell.’ And he said, ‘Dr. D, we’re gonna do everything we can.’ And I said, ‘I know you will.’ And then we played the game.
The first half was fairly even, though some Winthrop players had other memories from the first 20 minutes:
Mantoris Robinson, redshirt freshman forward on the ‘07 team: Coach Marshall threw me in there, man, and I messed up a play. I messed up a play and had something to say about it and guess what, I didn’t play the rest of the game. I remember it vividly.
We were running Jacksonville and the counter to Jacksonville, we had a series. It was for Craig Bradshaw and I was supposed to screen for him and I blew the play and I thought I was in the right. You know when you’re young you always thought you’re in the right, the coach is always wrong. He said ‘you know? Come have a seat by me.’ From then on, I didn’t get back in there.
Now being a coach, you never forget those learning experience. It stays dear to you and you can pass it along and you actually laugh at stuff like that as you go through it with younger guys.
Notre Dame’s athleticism was evident quickly:
Gaynor: They had a one-on-one with me and Russell Carter, and he just took off. I just remember getting the hell out the way. Plays like that made you realize you were playing against a pretty good team.
Martin, on Russell Carter: Oh yeah, Coach talked well about him, about how he was going to the league. So I had to make sure, ‘well, if he’s going, then I’m going too.’
Winthrop surged ahead at the end of the first half with a run that continued into the second. The Eagles outscored Notre Dame 37-10 in a run spanning the intermission to open a 54-34 lead in the second period. Gaynor blocked the shot of one of Notre Dame’s taller players, springing a fastbreak that resulted in Jenkins delivering a behind the back bounce pass to Martin for a layup:
Martin: We had that telepathy, you know what I mean? It took us a while to figure out how to balance off each other and once we figured it out it was real good.
Jenkins: It was really instinctual. I didn’t think twice about it honestly. I just read my defender and I knew that pass wasn’t going to be able to be telegraphed. Yea we were definitely having fun, but if you watch the film I was still all business until Torrell got me hyped with his reaction running back down the court. I was truly just locked in.
Key reserve DeAndre Adams, who tragically passed away in a car crash later in the spring of 2007, made memories with his knee-high jumping celebration on the Eagles’ bench:
John Adams, Adams’ father: DeAndre was always a confident kid, but that right there that was new to me. I’d seen him get excited over things but when I saw that, it was just like everyone else’s reaction, he was just that excited. He was always animated, but never that.
Winthrop proceeded to miss free throws during a nearly 8-minute stretch in which the Eagles struggled to score; Luke Harangody’s jumper gave Notre Dame a 58-57 lead with minutes left.
McCann: It would have been great if they went and won by 30. Dys and I would have gotten to the bar earlier. But they didn’t.
Martin: They had a lot of fight, they made a comeback. We could of took over the game after we had them down 20. You’ve gotta understand we stampeded on these fools. We were up 20 and got comfortable and the mark of any great team is how they handle adversity and they showed a lot coming back and making it a game so I had a lot of respect for them in that regard.
Williams: I don’t recall there ever being a panic at all, not for any second.
Jenkins: The first thing that came to mind was “oh no not again”. Every year time in the NCAA tournament we would go on a scoring drought in the second half that would eventually cost us the game. This game was no different. Difference was this time around though we had all already been here before in this situation. No one panicked because we were a seasoned group.
After Notre Dame took the lead, Winthrop scored eight of the game’s next 10 points, returning to the old faithful play, “Jacksonville”:
Robinson: We ran it late and ran it to perfection and Craig got a dunk out of it. It’s crazy how it all comes around. We ran it early, countered to it early and I messed it up. We ran it late and it worked and that put us ahead. There’s a story with everything.
Marshall: That was the amazing part of it. After blowing a 20-point game, Chris Gaynor effectively runs ‘Jacksonville’ for an uncontested layup, then he has the wherewithal to run the same play in a mirror image, one side to the other, and we get an even easier layup on the next possession. That was what was so remarkable about it, was our poise and execution under that duress.
Williams: One thing about Coach Marshall, if you run his plays the right way, you’ll get a point blank layup.
A 3 by Gaynor and a Jenkins kick-ahead pass to Bradshaw for a slam sealed the win:
Gaynor: I’ll never forget that pass he gave me for the 3. I’ll never forget that. Thanks Mike!
Jenkins: I felt Chris had a better look than me, and he was known for hitting big 3s in big games. We all trusted each other to make the right plays for one another.
Peele: That was as clutch as it gets. That’s who he is. That sucker, man… he looked at me, bobbing his head...
Gaynor: He knew I would have given him hell if he didn’t pass the ball. Like I said, that’s the type of team we were. Nobody was gonna force anything. Now, turning the clock a little forward, if it had been senior year I don’t know if Mike would have passed me the ball then. (laughing)
The celebration was immediate and emotional:
Gaynor: The fact that we won really didn’t surprise us that much, it was just the feeling that we finally did it, the feeling that we felt like we should have had the year before, and, if we’re being honest, the year before against Gonzaga. It was a surreal moment after the game. That was overwhelming to get that off our shoulders.
McCann: The previous year, as I recall it was Torrell who rushed out to the Tennessee kid who made the fall-away shot from the corner to beat them. They were pretty crushed after that game because they felt like they had that one. They’d worked so hard to get to that game and beat Notre Dame. No Big South team had ever done it. They’d been so close two years in a row. It was an emotional postgame.
Marshall: If people watched our team and just didn’t go by what league we’re from and all of that - we played an unbelievable schedule that year out of conference. It wasn’t shocking to me. Many times we went into the NCAA Tournament a 14 seed or worse and I thought we were gonna win.
Robinson: It was like a weight was lifted off the whole program. It was nothing but smiles, for the whole night. We probably partied too much, to be honest with you. I can remember after the game everybody just hugging each other. You see coaches crying, coaches and players hugging and crying, it ran that deep.
In a California bar, John Adams watched his son walk by CBS cameras: The thing that got me the most was when he walked by the TV, ‘what’s up Dad?’ That keeps going through my head, the end of the game when he walked past the camera.
DiGiorgio: It was all the euphoria you see when a team, especially an underdog team, pulls off a victory. I’m not sure anyone slept that night. We had a big party for the team.
Lahr, on the day after the Notre Dame win: We had the second round closed practice and we got back to the hotel and some time during the afternoon Craig Bradshaw, Phillip Williams, a few other guys and myself, we got in a car and drove downtown and we went and walked around downtown. It was probably after the parade, there was a lot of people down there. The people were asking us why weren’t we in the parade? The fans were real knowledgeable about basketball and they recognized our guys and congratulated them on how well they played.
The lasting reflections from Winthrop’s win over Notre Dame, and the 2007 team itself:
McCann: I’d been to a lot of NCAA Tournaments with ACC and Big Ten teams. The excitement was just as good. In fact, I’ll say this, I covered the ACC, the SEC and the Big Ten in my career. I never had more fun in my career than I did covering that team that season. It was a really good experience.
Martin, who recently retired after a long pro basketball career in Europe: It’s not until the absence of something that you realize.
Robinson: Once you’re a part of a program that wins, you don’t appreciate winning at that time because you’re like ‘when’s the next game? What’s the next championship? Can we get back to the tournament?’ But man, that team was special, and it starts to sit on you. Being a part of a mid-major program at Appalachian State you realize how hard it is, like, ‘wow.’
Adams: “It’s been a couple of years since I was able to watch an NCAA game. Just last weekend I sat down and watched the game and I was like, ‘wow, I haven’t done that in years.’ Everytime I go to The Coliseum I go to row 115 where that banner hangs at of DeAndre’s name. That team is always there. Coach Molinari, every year he still calls me on DeAndre’s birthday. There was something about that team, they were just a special group of people. They’ll be a part of my life forever. They’re the only thing that helped me get through the years.
There was something different about that team that year. To me, I could tell it was their time. Something about that year, this team was on a journey, and I could just tell they were gonna win that game.
Winthrop vs. Butler
Gametime: March 16, 1:30 p.m.
Television: TNT (channel 129)
Radio: 104.1 FM (The Bridge)
Read more: See Bret McCormick’s game preview on page 1B