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Biggest game in town

Winthrop fans cheer at the start of the game against Davidson on Friday at the Winthrop Coliseum. Davidson won, 60-47.
Winthrop fans cheer at the start of the game against Davidson on Friday at the Winthrop Coliseum. Davidson won, 60-47.

The star guards stuck out their tongues and smiled to an arena hot and sweaty and sold out as the winning fans sang the school fight song and chanted, "This is our house!"

Winning shots fell on a Friday night in Rock Hill when college basketball at Winthrop University was the only game in this town or anywhere else nearby in two states.

It felt like last year around this time when Winthrop thumped everybody at home and won its first ever NCAA Tournament game. The players on the team that won, and looked all night like it would win, swaggered with the confidence that meant all expected to win.

The team that didn't win looked like it hoped to win.

I, rapt, and 6,100 other people in the arena and millions more on television on ESPN2 watched a team from the Charlotte region that undoubtedly will thump somebody from a big-name school in the NCAA Tournament. Almost all the Charlotte media somehow found Winthrop, smelling a big game.

Unfortunately, that team with the cocky guards that made shots and waggled tongues and pointed at their fans that sang "Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye" wore red uniforms with "Davidson" on the front.

Davidson fans should start checking for cheap flights to all NCAA Tourney cities after their team's 60-47 win Friday.

When Davidson went up 20-8 in the first half, I felt like the old police reporter I used to be. The game had the look of a chicken truck stalled on desolate train tracks, with the only question left to answer whether locals would come and grab free hens after the feathers stopped flying.

Winthrop made runs throughout and didn't quit. The Eagles kept the game close enough and near the end there was a glimmer of hope.

But you know the night isn't yours if you're a Winthrop fan and three fans from Davidson are taunting Winthrop's students while wearing a sportcoat and tie. Then, the stoutest Winthrop fan lifts up his gold T-shirt to brag that he has a bigger gut.

It's a rough night when some of the home crowd's fans loudest cheers came when three students made a basket with a stuffed eagle toy shot from a giant slingshot meaning everybody in the building got a free taco.

Another bad sign was when a rabid Winthrop student fan named Shane Canup, who took a plane and train and spent his rent money last year to go to Washington state to watch his team play in the NCAA tournament, is painted gold, with an Eagle painted on his chest, and the only thing he had to cheer about when it was over was

he won $5 and a beach towel during a time-out gimmick.

And with all that, Winthrop and its fans made for a great atmosphere on national TV.

And even better, Friday night for Winthrop fans makes no difference -- none -- about whether Winthrop hosts the Big South Tournament and has a shot to go to NCAA March Madness again. Winthrop wins two home games next week, wins three more at home the next week, then Winthrop does what it has done seven times in the past nine years. Earn an NCAA bid. In that regard, they are among the names like Duke and UCLA and Kentucky.

In the front row, five Winthrop students sat. Subdued afterward, following brash early. Brandon Beck spoke for his crew: "The season is not over. We will be back next week. Winthrop isn't done. Not tonight. Not ever."

I heard somebody Friday from the hallowed halls of the University of North Carolina joke that, "I love it when mid-majors squabble." That person with superiority coursing through his blue-blooded veins thinks the ACC is the greatest. And it probably is.

But that game Friday night with Davidson winning its 17th straight game and Winthrop fighting to keep its Charlotte-area crown atop its head with not a seat to be had in front of the TV nation was what college hoops is all about.

This game was about who can claim to be the better of the two teams in the Charlotte region. Davidson can boast. For years now, the better team has been in another state. Winthrop.

It might be again, when the NCAA Tourney comes around. Winthrop is still a terrific team, and 6,100 fans showed up Friday and acted like this game was huge. Because it was. This area right now is basketball country. College only.

This was such a big game between teams 45 miles from each other that an executive from the Charlotte Bobcats sat courtside, while the Bobcats played in between in uptown Charlotte. Charlotte played a team from Sacramento in the NBA, but I bet few in the arena cared. It's likely few who went to the Bobcats game will ever remember that they went Friday night. Yet, nobody who watched Davidson and Winthrop slug it out like Ali and Foreman will ever forget it.

Web extras

• View video highlights of the Winthrop/Davidson game

• Check out more game photos at heraldonline.com/galleries

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