Icy, bitter cold

UNCA's Rashad Gill tries to control a loose ball as Winthrop's George Valentine jumps over him.
UNCA's Rashad Gill tries to control a loose ball as Winthrop's George Valentine jumps over him.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- UNC Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said he didn't "pull a Vince Lombardi" or give a "win one for the Gipper" halftime speech, but whatever he said, whatever his Bulldogs did at the break, he needs to bottle it.

The Bulldogs stormed out of the locker room, smacked Winthrop with an 8-0 start that turned into a 31-4 run and went on to rout the Eagles 71-56 in what was supposed to be a down-to-the-wire showdown for first place in the Big South Conference.

Instead, the Bulldogs (18-4), who head into the second half of the conference season with a 7-0 record and a two-game lead, led by as many as 26 in the second half and turned this one into a laugher. It was the worst league loss for the Eagles (14-8, 5-2) since losing by 16 at Liberty in 2004.

"We became unglued a little bit, quite honestly," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said.

"At the start of the second half, they came out with more energy than we did, which was something we talked about. They got on a roll, and we got into a downward spiral."

The Bulldogs, who trailed 33-26 at the half, open the second half with a backdoor layup and blistered the Eagles' defense for 57-percent shooting and 45 points in the second half, and no one was more responsible than K.J. Garland, who finished with 26 points. He hit all five of his shots and 3-of-3 3-pointers for 19 second-half points.

He teamed with Bryan Smithson for 40 points and 14-of-21 shooting. The Eagles did a good job of slowing them down in the first half, but had no answer the second.

"At the half, we talked about the fact we were playing Winthrop's game," Biedenbach said. "We had to play our game. And we've been a second-half team. (Assistant) coach (Trip) Cogburn reminded our players we had outscored teams by 160 points in the second half.

"We shot it extremely well, and K.J., what a game he played. But we played defense, and defense made the difference."

Winthrop shot 29 percent in the second half and didn't get its first field goal until the 12:55 mark. The Bulldogs went up 46-34 when John Williams slapped Justin Burton's shot toward the backcourt and Garland turned it into a layup.

Peele protested, saying Williams goaltended the shot.

"That was a crucial play," Peele said.

Still, they were down just 46-36 when Taj McCullough got the first field goal of the second half. But they didn't get another field goal until the 4:12 mark to cut the lead to 66-44.

During the run, the Bulldogs hit some tough shots, particularly Garland.

"They hit some really deep shots," Peele said, "when they were guarded."

The Bulldogs were so good they didn't need 7-7 Kenny George, who wasn't going to play because of bad knees.

It didn't help Winthrop that point guard Chris Gaynor had missed most of the week's practice with the flu. While he played 20 minutes, Gaynor wasn't himself. That was evident early in the first half when Garland went by him twice for back-to-back layups. Gaynor also had four turnovers, the most since the Baylor game on Nov. 19.

"He was exhausted," Peele said, "and he did things he doesn't normally do. He's the key to our team. I probably stayed with him too long in the second half, but I've got so much confidence in him."

McCullough, also slowed by the flu, was back on the court for the first time all week, and he wasn't himself. And Antwon Harris, who had missed three games with an ankle injury, played an ineffective 10 minutes.

But the way the Bulldogs played, it might not have mattered.

Winthrop's bench was a factor in the first half, when the Eagles built a 33-26 lead. With 4:38 left in the half and the Eagles up 25-23, Michael Jenkins went to the bench with his second foul, and Gaynor and McCullough were already there.

The Eagles finished the half with freshmen Justin Burton, Charles Corbin and George Valentine, redshirt freshman Byron Faison and sophomore Mantoris Robinson. That group outscored the Bulldogs 8-3 and gave the starters some extra rest, but that didn't matter coming out of the locker room.

Now the Bulldogs have a leg up on the league, but Peele isn't conceding the regular-season title just yet.

"There's no question they're in the driver's seat," Peele said, "but they've still got to go to Liberty, High Point and Winthrop. This thing is a long way from being done, and it's going to come down to who plays well in March."