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Winthrop Eagles dig deep, emerge with win in Big South tourney opener

Nothing they've done, nothing they've shown, nothing they've said gave any indication this was even worth dreaming about.

This was a game the Winthrop Eagles had lost many times over, enough times to have made it the worst kind of trend - the self-perpetuating kind.

But Winthrop walked into the Big South Conference tournament Wednesday afternoon with a confidence rooted in faith.

The Eagles' 71-55 win over Campbell (17-15) in the quarterfinals sets the stage for what would be the most improbable of their tournament runs, since it came at the end of an 11-19 regular season that sparked talk of firings rather than expectations of white-hot basketball.

"We just knew we had to step up as seniors, because we can't look to anyone else," said point guard Reggie Middleton, who led with a game-high 25 points. "In the past, there was always a guy like Mantoris Robinson to take that shot.

"We've been missing that talented senior, so we knew we just had to step up and do that ourselves."

Middleton was exceptional, playing a game that went beyond the simple act of raining down 3-pointers (5 of 10). He also got to the free throw line (6 of 6), dished the ball effectively (four assists) and didn't do the things that keep Winthrop coach Randy Peele up at night (no turnovers).

Middleton was sheepish when asked about one particular deep ball, taken from about 28 feet away right in front of the bench, with less than 10 seconds ticked off the shot clock.

"No conscience," he said, smiling broadly.

It's the kind of shot that drives a coach nuts, especially when you'd like to grind a little clock.

But it went in, which left Peele to meekly drape an arm over Middleton's shoulder at the post-game podium, grin and say afterward, "we may have a little conference," and then go back into recent history.

The gulf in level of basketball is tremendous, but Peele sees a parallel between last year's national champion Connecticut team that lost four of its final five before getting hot in the Big East and NCAA tournaments and winning 11 in a row and trophies.

"Reggie just put us on his back the same way Kemba Walker did," Peele said of the former Huskies and current Charlotte Bobcats point guard. "I mean, a year ago, who expected Connecticut to do what they did?"

There's a reason it was unexpected, however - at least here.

The Eagles had lost 12 games this season when leading in the second half, including both to Campbell. They had also lost five of their previous six games, looking for the world like a team ready for it to end.

But this is the time of year Peele lives for, so infused with the belief that a run's coming.

"Talent is certainly a factor," Peele said. "But what I love about tournament basketball is there's an element of mental toughness required to win three in a row.

"The way we play is conducive to being able to win three games in four days."

With 12 minutes and 10 seconds left in the first half, leading scorer Andre Jones went down in a heap under the basket after missing a layup. As the Kimmel Arena went deathly quiet, Jones sobbed, pounding the floor with his fists, looking like a man who had torn an ACL.

Jones had been mired in a miserable slump, hitting 19.4 percent of his shots over the previous three games and 28.8 percent over the previous five.

But after realizing the drama was for no reason and coming back, he drained back-to-back triples to push the Winthrop lead to 10, the first sign this thing was going their way. He finished with 14, hitting 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.

"I laid there for a minute and then I realized I wasn't hurt," Jones said with a grin. "Then I came back in and hit one, so I came down and hit another one.

"My teammates keep telling me to shoot. I get in my own head sometimes, but the pressure was off tonight with Reggie hitting those deep 3s."

WINTHROP 71, CAMPBELL 55

WINTHROP

Min

FG-A

FT-A

OR-TR

A

PF

PT

Jerome

37

2-5

4-4

2-4

9

2

8

Bourne

15

1-2

0-0

0-0

0

1

2

Valentine

34

3-5

1-2

1-7

0

3

7

Jones

31

5-16

0-0

1-3

1

2

14

Middleton

33

7-13

6-6

0-1

4

2

25

Morgan

23

3-6

3-6

2-7

1

3

9

L Brown

4

1-1

0-0

0-0

0

2

2

King

8

0-0

0-0

0-1

2

1

0

Gamble

15

2-6

0-0

1-3

0

0

4

Totals

200

24-54

14-18

10-31

17

16

71

Percentages: FG .444, FT .778. 3-Point Goals: 9-22, .409 (Middleton 5-10, Jones 4-9, Gamble 0-3). Team Rebounds: 5. Blocked Shots: 3 (Valentine, Jerome, Jones). Turnovers: 8 (Jones 2, Jerome 2, Gamble 2, King, Valentine). Steals: 8 (Valentine 2, Middleton 2, Jerome 2, King, Jones). Technical Fouls: None.

CAMPBELL

Min

FG-A

FT-A

OR-TR

A

PF

PT

Griffin

30

2-5

4-4

1-7

2

2

8

Harris

23

1-2

0-0

0-2

1

2

2

Freeman

26

2-7

2-2

0-1

2

4

6

White

34

4-8

5-9

0-2

1

4

15

Merthie

32

3-8

0-0

1-3

4

0

9

Celestin

28

4-6

0-0

1-7

3

3

8

Ferguson

6

0-1

0-0

0-0

0

2

0

Ryan

16

2-6

2-2

0-3

0

2

7

Horton

5

0-0

0-0

0-0

0

0

0

Totals

200

18-43

13-17

6-29

13

19

55

Percentages: FG .419, FT .765. 3-Point Goals: 6-15, .400 (Merthie 3-6, White 2-4, Ryan 1-4, Freeman 0-1). Team Rebounds: 4. Blocked Shots: 4 (Griffin 4). Turnovers: 16 (White 4, Harris 3, Freeman 2, Celestin 2, Griffin 2, Ryan 2, Ferguson). Steals: 4 (Merthie 2, Freeman, Harris). Technical Fouls: None.

Winthrop

35

36

-

71

Campbell

26

29

-

55

Att.-443. Officials-Tim Nestor, Tony Henderson, Steve Coleman.

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