There weren’t any tears in Winthrop’s locker room by the time media entered after the Eagles’ 76-64 loss to Butler Thursday in the NCAA Tournament. Players picked through steaming pasta and breadsticks in little plastic dishes, some seated on chairs in front of their lockers while others retreated into the privacy of the narrow locker spaces. People handle losses differently, but we all can agree losing sucks.
Playing in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t.
This was the dual reality in Winthrop’s locker room after a more muscular Butler squad ended the Eagles’ season in icy Milwaukee. There were red eyes and empty stares, and there were some chuckles too especially about a reporter’s question to Xavier Cooks that used the word “girth.” These are young men, remember.
Pat Kelsey’s team was aware that it succumbed to a superior opponent. Butler’s “girth” was evident any time there was a dead ball and their players briefly stood still next to thinner, shorter Winthrop counterparts. The Bulldogs were thicker and the physical nature of their play impacted the outcome.
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“This is a Big East team,” said Kelsey. “I watch a lot of Big East basketball and there are some bloodbaths. It’s a strong, physical brand of basketball.
“They set the tone from a physicality standpoint and I don’t think we really met the physical challenge the way we needed to.”
Butler wasn’t just brutish. Winthrop entered Thursday’s game ranked 21st nationally in 3-point field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 31 percent from beyond the arc. Butler’s snappy ball movement jerked the Eagle defenders around like helpless chess pieces in the first half, in which the Bulldogs made 7 of 13 shots and built a comfortable lead never relinquished.
The Eagles played bravely in Milwaukee but lost to a better team. That doesn’t diminish the importance of what the team achieved. Its 26 wins are the third most in the school’s Division I history, and the senior class of Keon Johnson, Tevin Prescott, Joshua Davenport, Roderick Perkins and Hunter Sadlon won 88 games. Most importantly, those seniors and their teammates got Winthrop back to where it belongs, in the thick of March Madness, the school’s name scribbled onto strangers’ tournament brackets across America.
“In about six, seven months there will be a banner put back up in the Winthrop Coliseum,” said Kelsey. “This senior class has reestablished Winthrop basketball to its rightful place as a force in mid-major basketball.”
Before leaving Thursday, assistant coach Mark Prosser checked with Bradley Center personnel to see if he could take Winthrop’s NCAA Tournament locker room nameplate, a keepsake the program hopes to have a pile of in five years time. Still, it’s not guaranteed that the Eagles will get back next year, nor is it certain that Kelsey will still be coaching Winthrop in 2017-18, such is the attention he’ll inevitably receive over the next few months from bigger, richer schools.
None of that was percolating in Winthrop’s locker room at the Bradley Center. There were plenty of smiles, especially those wrenching poignant ones after something great has ended.
“It really is a blessing that we were able to make it this far,” said Prescott, who started his college basketball career as a walk-on before earning a scholarship. “A lot of teams don’t make it this far, and a lot of people don’t get to experience something like this. It is something we will always remember.”
Winthrop can’t lose in the NCAA Tournament, can’t revise history - what if we just...? - can’t eat pasta in an NBA arena if it doesn’t make the Big Dance in the first place.
“It’s been a cool ride,” said Perkins, whose last points in a Winthrop uniform came on a dunk at the buzzer. “It’s been a journey I will never forget. Walking into this gym, we don’t usually get stuff like this. This is something special and something I will never forget.”
Losing sucks. Everyone connected with Winthrop basketball knows missing the NCAA Tournament is worse.