A late season road loss looks like it’ll cost Winthrop an outright Big South regular season championship for the third straight season.
Back in 2016, Winthrop lost at High Point in the penultimate game and shared the title with the Panthers. Last year, a double overtime loss in Asheville meant the Eagles had to share the championship again. That one didn’t sting as much because the Eagles still won home court for the conference tournament.
But Thursday night’s 89-75 defeat in Asheville’s Kimmel Arena likely cost the Eagles an outright regular season title, and possibly hosting rights. Winthrop will have to beat Charleston Southern Saturday and hope Asheville loses at Gardner-Webb -- and several other results would also have to go the Eagles’ way -- to have any chance of playing the conference tournament at home.
“They came shot out of a cannon, credit to them,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “They jumped on us right out of halftime and we didn’t respond. Hopefully, we get a chance to see them again in the conference tournament.”
Everything was different from when Winthrop smashed the Bulldogs in Rock Hill last month by 27 points.
The Bulldogs made 4-of-22 3-pointers that night, but hit four of their first five Thursday, ending the night with 13 triples.
Asheville star MaCio Teague was quiet in Rock Hill, but hit six 3’s and scored 23 points this time.
And Jonathan Baehre, who scored two points and was invisible in the first meeting, was a menace on both ends of the court, blocking shots, hitting 3’s and slamming home a late exclamation.
“We were hoping they would miss shots instead of making them miss,” said Winthrop senior Xavier Cooks, who will potentially play his final home game Saturday.
Winthrop was different too. The game had gnawing similarity to the Eagles’ loss against Asheville in the 2016 Big South tournament final, one of those games where everything went right for the other team while Winthrop looked like it was running through mud and never caught up. A late surge Thursday night was eventually swatted away by the Bulldogs and the Eagles fell to 1-6 in Kimmel Arena under Kelsey.
Asheville’s senior class -- the school’s most successful in history with 80 wins -- was recognized before the game. No Winthrop players, coaches or fans will be sad to see Ahmad Thomas, Raekwon Miller and Kevin Vannatta move on to adult life.
All three were integral when Asheville beat Winthrop to an NCAA tourney bid two years ago, and the trio was influential again Thursday, combining for 46 points and driving their team emotionally. Out of a second half timeout, Asheville dumped the ball inside to Vannatta and he backed down freshman Chuck Falden before scoring and drawing a foul. He flexed for the crowd, mouthpiece dangling.
How much did the Asheville seniors want to win on their night?
“The question is, “who don’t?” said Thomas, holding the regular season championship trophy in his lap. “You have the trophy here waiting for you afterward.”
In last year’s corresponding game in the Blue Ridge Mountains, UNC Asheville and Winthrop played what Bulldogs coach Nick McDevitt called “one of the great Big South basketball games, maybe ever,” a double overtime classic. Thursday’s game was never very interesting, such was Asheville’s grip on the proceedings, and Winthrop’s seniors would do well to remember the fire the Bulldogs’ veterans oozed after they go through their Senior Day proceedings Saturday in Rock Hill.