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Winthrop women enter Big South tourney as third seed

The day her team was picked fifth in the Big South Conference preseason poll, Winthrop women's basketball coach Marlene Stolling just grinned.

But just because no one knew what to expect then, the league knows what Winthrop's about now.

The Eagles will enter the first round of the Big South Conference tournament as the third seed, and as hot as any team in the league. They've won seven of their last eight and 12 of their last 16, setting records along the way. They open the tournament tonight against Radford at 7:30 p.m., at High Point's Millis Center.

"I can't speak for the rest of the league, but I think Marlene and her staff have done an excellent job," said top-seeded Liberty coach Carey Green said. "I always thought they had a lot of talent, and it takes a period of time to get confidence and understand the concepts a new coach puts in place.

"But I can tell you it's not a fluke they beat us."

The Eagles (18-12, 12-6) were able to put the league on notice by virtue of the up-tempo style Stollings installed. So while she was a bit of an unknown commodity early in the year, by the time they made a lap through the league, the word was out - When their shots are falling, they can beat anyone.

"I don't think it's something we'd have predicted," Stolling said of her team's rapid rise. "I think once we got to late January, and had a stronger feel for the league and what people were trying to do, they got more confidence in what they were running.

Winthrop's perimeter trio of Dequesha McClanahan, Diana Choibekova and Samiya Wright lead the way, firing up 3-pointers at a rate that occasionally impresses their coach, who used to be a pretty good scorer in her own right.

Stollings remains Ohio's all-time leading scorer in boys' or girls' high school basketball, meaning she outscored LeBron James back in her day.

McClanahan (20.8 points per game) topped the career 1,000-point mark this season, making her the first Winthrop player and second player in conference history to do so before her junior season.

Choibekova (16.1 points per game) has been a revelation from beyond the arc, as her 119 3-pointers are seven short of the NCAA's all-time single-season record.

She also leads the team at 6.5 rebounds per game, becoming a more well-rounded player as the season has progressed.

Wright (13.4 points per game) has been impressive in her own right, second on the school's all-time scoring list for freshman, setting a record for most 3-pointers by a first-year player.

They swept Radford in the regular season, but were swept by potential semifinal opponent High Point, so Stollings knows there are no guarantees this weekend.

But now that she knows her way around, she likes her chances.

"I'm very happy with the way we're playing right now," Stollings said. "Once we hit that point where we started clicking, we just played at a higher level.