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Middleton making strides for Eagles

Sometimes the pressing gets you farther away from the goal than closer to it.

So for Winthrop in general, and senior point guard Reggie Middleton in particular, taking a step back was the difference in moving forward.

Middleton bounced back from an awful stretch of games with perhaps his best of the season in Thursday's win over Radford, and will need to continue that progress today when the Eagles host Virginia Military Institute.

"I don't think there's any doubt that was his best game," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said of Middleton after the Radford game. "Tonight he was a true point guard, not just a player."

Of course, calling him a player was a bit of a stretch considering what he had done recently.

Middleton was mired in a horrific slump prior to the win over the Highlanders.

In his previous four games, he wasn't hitting shots from beyond the 3-point line (23.5 percent) or in general (26.5 percent). He was getting his assists (20), but was turning it over far too much (14).

For a point guard in a system predicated on smart point guard play, it was unacceptable.

Peele said he's had several meetings with Middleton lately, but was careful not to push too much against the playmaker. The coach knew he needed him back in the boat, so he pulled, but not too hard. Of course, it's hard to touch any part of Middleton at the moment without him wincing, as he's struggling with shoulder, knee and hip injuries, but Peele was doing everything he could to get his distributor on track, knowing the season was hanging in the balance.

Middleton responded exquisitely with a career-high 11 assists against Radford (against just four turnovers), creating the kind of ratio that was needed.

"It helps him from a confidence standpoint to play this way," Peele said. "He needed to feel good about himself, to know that he could play like that."

There were signs at different points this year he was getting it. He directed traffic effectively in a road win at Presbyterian, he had 14 points and seven assists in a win at Jacksonville. But after that, he fell flat with a one-assist, four-turnover eye-roller at Clemson, and even an eight-assist, two-giveaway game at Georgia was overcome by his 3 for 17 shooting night.

Middleton grins and shakes his head when asked about that stretch, knowing it's far from what he expected of himself coming into the season. A natural penetrator, Middleton was too often like a small dog chasing cars -- once he caught the bumper, he didn't know what to do with it. Against high-major teams with shot-blockers, his drives would end up with nothing when he was blocked or couldn't find and open teammate, and instead of pulling up, he kept driving. It didn't get better until Thursday.

That's when he shot less (just seven attempts, well off his 11.4 per game average), dumped it off more and enjoyed the results.

"He did a real good job of moving it around," center George Valentine said of Middleton's game against Radford. "There were some shots he was taking before where he'd be in against a big man and shouldn't have taken. But now, he gets in there with the big guys and he's pulling back, dishing it more."

The fact he's getting steadier play out of Valentine and the rest of the post players (they outscored Radford 42-12 in the paint) helps. But Middleton admitted he was guilty of trying to do too much.

"It's been a frustrating time," he said, shaking his head at the memory. "I was trying to make the incredible play instead of the simple ones, and I got myself in a lot of trouble that way."

Asked whether he was pressing, Middleton grinned.

"Everybody likes a highlight," he said. "I was trying to do things that were not right, when all I had to do was slow down."

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