Eagles freefall in mile-high city

Winthrop head coach Randy Peele, left, and assistant coach Marty McGillan look on as time runs out in Winthrop's 71-40 loss to Washington State in the first round of NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Denver.
Winthrop head coach Randy Peele, left, and assistant coach Marty McGillan look on as time runs out in Winthrop's 71-40 loss to Washington State in the first round of NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Denver.

DENVER -- Winthrop played the first half like they might steal a win.

The second half turned into a group of guys breaking into your house and stealing the silver, the china and the bronze baby booties, then eating your Twinkies.

When Winthrop's Chris Gaynor hit a 3-pointer near the end, some in the crowd even gave him an ovation.

"Hallelujah," somebody screamed.

That somebody was a fan of Notre Dame with his face painted green and shamrocks on his cheeks. Notre Dame was the team Winthrop beat last year in the NCAA Tournament. But the Eagles would beat nobody on this terrible, dark, brutal night.

Gaynor's basket narrowed the score to 71-40. Winthrop, unfortunately, had the 40. That's the way it would end, an avalanche in the Rockies.

It was so bad a guy in the third row read a Harry Potter book. Aloud, to his son. During the game. I heard one lady make a call on her cell phone and tell the person on the other end, "I can't watch anymore."

It was so bad that when a Washington State player threw up a terrible shot, an air ball, the only person in the whole crowd to say "Air Ball!" was an usher.

I only heard him because he was embarrassed and told me, "I just wanted to give Winthrop a cheer."

It was so bad a woman behind me who had paid a lot of money for a ticket crocheted an afghan.

And that was while the ball was in play.

The first half of Winthrop's NCAA Tournament game against Washington State in Denver ended tied at 29. Winthrop's small contingent of fans who had made the expensive trip had cheered, and it sure seemed like last year when Winthrop beat Notre Dame in the first round for its first NCAA Tournament win.

But that win last year made the atmosphere different. In past years at NCAA games, including last year, Winthrop was the Cinderella. This year, they were the ugly stepsister.

Few people from other schools cheered for them like fans did before Winthrop won last year.

A basketball fan from Denver, a cowboy named Charlie Schaefer with a gold belt buckle with a steer on it, a man who could have been a double for the Marlboro Man, tracked me down and said, "Wow! Winthrop is tough. I'm a believer."

Then, after the game I ran into Schaefer. He looked me in the eye and said, "Wow! A collapse! What happened?"

Who knows?

Why doesn't matter. All that matters is the game turned ugly.

Michele and Derrick Gainey of Rock Hill, both Winthrop alumni, had tried to fly to Denver on Wednesday. They drove to Columbia, the flight was canceled, so they drove to Charlotte. They ended up on a flight that landed in Denver just a couple hours before the game. They spent money and time to get to this game.

"I never was able to get off work any year before this one. I am so excited," Michele said at halftime.

In the stands after the game, Michele sat. Her husband, Derrick, whom I had met in Spokane, Wash., last year when Winthrop won, had fled for fresh air. He couldn't take any more, his wife said.

"To watch them play, it was worth it, but it's heartbreaking right now," she said. "We were tied at halftime. You don't mind losing; that is part of the game. But this ... this is gut-wrenching."

There were about 100 Winthrop fans at the game. Many spent a ton of money to get to Denver. During the second half, when watching the game became unbearable, I looked into that part of the crowd every few seconds.

Shock. Disbelief. Pain.

But no tears.

I found Al Gaynor, father of senior player Chris Gaynor, who played his last game. Al and his wife, Leslie, have traveled to more than 100 Winthrop games in four years. They've driven and flown all over the country.

"The money, the time, it was all worth it," Al Gaynor said. "Not the way we wanted to go out. But all worth it. I'll come to games next year, even though Chris will graduate and be gone. I'm part of Winthrop. We all are."

So many Winthrop fans after the game talked about last year. That team was Winthrop's best ever. It won an NCAA game. Winthrop was on the cover of The Sporting News.

Then, the coach with the tailored suits, Gregg Marshall, who revived the program from the grave a decade ago when nobody went to the games and the team stunk anyway, left for a better paying job. Three of the top players graduated.

But Winthrop drew the most fans in its history this year. The new coach, Randy Peele, is a tough, alley fighter of a coach. He reminds me of a drill sergeant. The team ground out 22 victories and lost 12 games. Yet, Winthrop won its conference tournament, as usual, to gain the NCAA Tournament bid.

If Winthrop had played closer to Rock Hill, maybe more fans would have been able to go. The true test of a fan is whether you root for the team even when they lose. This team lost -- badly.

I hope the fans don't give up.

Charlie Schaefer, the cowboy with the gold belt buckle with the steer on it, told me after the game, "There's always next year when you are Winthrop."

He's right.

But until then, this feels like a kick in the shins with Schaefer's cowboy boots.

View a photo gallery from Thursday night's game, watch videos, listen to podcasts and read blogs from Herald Sports Editor Gary McCann and columnist Andrew Dys' road trip to Denver at:


Related stories from Rock Hill Herald