Big South lead on the line vs. 'Dogs

Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh had the pleasure -- maybe that's not the right word -- of playing UNC Asheville and Winthrop in back-to-back home games last week.

His Bucs lost to the Bulldogs 86-73 and 81-64 to the Eagles.

After the Winthrop game, he said he'd be willing to pay to watch the Bulldogs and Eagles go at it at 4:30 p.m. today in UNCA's sold-out Justice Center.

He knows two good teams when he's beaten by them.

While Radebaugh wouldn't offer a prediction, he did offer an assessment of the Big South Conference's front runners.

"That's two veteran teams who know what they're doing," Radebaugh said, "and their styles aren't that far off.

"Winthrop has the heart of a champion, and Asheville has developed that. When the Asheville players walk in the gym, they look like they expect to win. Just like Winthrop, they have a swagger."

And when the final horn sounds late this afternoon, one of them could be walking tall with a leg up in the race for the regular-season title as the conference season crosses the halfway point.

Eddie Biedenbach's Bulldogs, winners of six straight, hold first place at 6-0. The Bulldogs' 17-4 start is their best-ever after 21 games. Winthrop is 5-1 in the league, 14-7 overall and on a five-game winning streak.

An Asheville win would give the Bulldogs, who haven't won a regular-season title since 1998, a two-game lead with seven to play. A Winthrop win gives the Eagles a tie for first but, at least for the time being, an early edge over the Bulldogs in any head-to-head tiebreakers.

Both teams understand the importance of winning the regular season. The regular-season champion has the opportunity to host every game it plays in the conference tournament. The Eagles have won three straight tournaments, thanks in part to playing nine games in the Winthrop Coliseum.

Winthrop has beaten the Bulldogs seven straight times, 15 straight in the regular season. The Bulldogs' recent wins eliminated the Eagles from the conference tournament in 2003 and 2004. Winthrop won three meetings last year by 19 points each.

The Justice Center, which is said to seat 1,100, sold out on Jan. 28, the first time in the program's history a game sold out that far in advance. With Biedenbach holding what could be his best team ever, the Justice Center has already seen five games with crowds in excess of 1,100. Today could set a record.

While it's arguably the biggest regular-season game in UNCA's history, Winthrop coach Randy Peele is trying to take another approach.

"It's a big game," he said, "but it's just the next game."

Biedenbach was taking a business-like approach too.

"It looks like they're playing exceptional basketball right now," he said. "Our guys are going to be ready to play, but we'll have to be at our best."

Peele called the Bulldogs "a very good team" and was lavish with his praise of senior guards K.J. Garland and Bryan Smithson. Garland averages 14.2 points and six assists and Smithson averages 17.8 points, shoots 47 percent on 3-pointers and 80 percent at the line.

"They're good because of them," Peele said. "Smithson is playing as well as anybody in the league, and Garland has given us fits in the past.

"The difference in this team is they seem to be coexisting a little better. Last year they didn't appear to always be on the same page."

It's those two, Peele said, the Eagles must focus on, although there's 7-foot-7 Kenny George (13.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.4 blocks), too. In three games last year, George had 12 points, four rebounds and five blocks in 32 minutes. But he's playing 20 minutes a game this year, and Peele even called Terry Holland, the former coach at Virginia, to find out how teams tried to defend 7-4 Ralph Sampson.

The Bulldogs are averaging almost 80 points, leading the league in shooting (.505). Winthrop is tops in scoring defense (59.4), field goal percentage defense (.398) and rebounding.

"This is going to be a great test for our defense," Peele said.

And then there's the pesky free throws the Eagles have been missing. They're shooting a woeful 48 percent in league games, leaving a possible 44 points on the floor in six games. The past five games, the Eagles haven't had to make any that mattered. Peele had his players shoot 100 free throws each of the past three days.

Winthrop's Taj McCullough and Chris Gaynor were sick this week and missed practice time. Antwon Harris, who missed the last three games with an ankle injury, has practiced and could be ready today.

But Peele told his team this week it's the time of year when no one's feeling sorry for you if you have injuries or illness. It's February.

"My mentality is, let's just bring it on and play," Peele said. "Just tell us where the next game is, and we'll be there."


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