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Winthrop Eagles fall to VMI in Big South semifinals

As it turns out, defense and effort and emotion may only be able to take you so far.

In basketball, eventually, you have to hit a shot.

Winthrop's inability to put the ball in the basket, an issue all year long, was a problem for the last time in the Eagle's 75-55 loss to Virginia Military in the Big South tournament semifinal.

To get that far, the Eagles (12-20) shot well against Campbell. But Thursday, the shots simply stopped falling, which brought a bitter end to a season that so many had higher hopes for.

"The hard part about tonight," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said, "is that we just didn't play well."

When Peele took the postgame podium, he thanked senior guards Andre Jones and Reggie Middleton for all they had done for his program.

But the reality was neither did enough to keep the Eagles in the game. They each scored 14 points, but combined to shoot 10-of-29 from the floor.

It was a marked departure from Wednesday, when they led them to an upset win against Campbell. But that was the end of their good basketball.

"I don't know what was different," Jones said quietly. "Everybody went into the tournament 0-0. We went through with the same routine, the same attitude...

"The only thing that changed was they outplayed us."

VMI (17-15) looked like the fresher and sharper team, despite playing its fifth game in seven days. The Keydets didn't go on a 3-point barrage as they did in a first-round upset of No. 2 Coastal Carolina (when the Keydets hit 14 triples), but they hit enough, and spread the scoring evenly. D.J. Covington led them with 16 and Stan Okoye had 13 points and 10 rebounds. Guard Keith Gabriel, who scored 58 in two games against Winthrop in the regular season, was held to nine.

VMI led by as many as 14 in the first half, and the Keydets were 15-0 in the regular season when building a double-digit lead. They'd only continue to build on that, as Winthrop got no closer than 10 in the second half.

From the start, Winthrop's plan was turned on its head. Peele preached to bypass open 3-pointers to try to pound the ball inside.

Instead, senior post players George Valentine and Matt Morgan combined for a single point (that on a Valentine free throw), failing to connect on any of their eight attempts from the field.

The offensive disruption was partially by design, as VMI double Middleton to try to get the ball out of his hands.

But the bigger issue remained that Winthrop was simply not a good-shooting team this year.

Their 32.8 percent shooting was below their season average (42.3 percent), but at no point this year did it look like there was a consistent flow.

Other than Jones' early hot streak it was hard to find a moment when the offense had an identity.

Middleton threw them on his back Wednesday, but when Middleton's first 3-pointer missed badly, it seemed to set the tone for the night, and the end of the season.

There was little to be said when it was over. Both Middleton and Jones were barely audible, and Peele simply didn't have that much to say.

The plan was built to highlight the senior guards, who won a tournament title their sophomore years, and broke the Winthrop streak of guards winning two titles.

Of course, streaks were hard to come by. Winthrop hadn't won back-to-back games since beating Radford and VMI on Jan. 5 and 7.

"It's hard," Peele said. "You want to build everything around your seniors, but tonight, our best players were our freshmen."

That spoke volumes, and set the stage for a long bus ride home through the night, and the uncertain tomorrow for a program that lacked an identity all year long.

Darin Gantt