Healthier Eagles ready for Chants

Winthrop's Michael Jenkins goes up for a shot against Coastal Carolina earlier this season. The Eagles will be on the road today to play the Chants in Conway.
Winthrop's Michael Jenkins goes up for a shot against Coastal Carolina earlier this season. The Eagles will be on the road today to play the Chants in Conway.

For the first time since before the Big South Conference opener at High Point on Jan. 12, Winthrop coach Randy Peele looked around the Winthrop Coliseum on Tuesday and saw every one of his players going hard at practice.

Antwon Harris, who suffered a severe ankle sprain on the morning of the High Point game, missed three games and played just 29 minutes since, looked like his old self. He came from 15 feet out on the wing during a five-on-five drill and followed a miss with a rim-shaking dunk.

Chris Gaynor, who practiced maybe 20 minutes last week while battling the flu, was back. He admitted he's not 100 percent but he's a heck of a lot better than he was in a loss at UNC Asheville four days ago.

Taj McCullough and Mantoris Robinson, also sick last week, looked healthy, too.

Getting healthy couldn't come at a better time for the Eagles (14-8, 5-2 Big South), who are two games back of UNC Asheville in the regular-season race and play three of the next five games on the road, starting at 7 tonight against Coastal Carolina (10-10, 3-4).

"The biggest thing for us tonight," Peele said, "is what kind of effort we have. Practice today was crisp, but we've got to play with great energy. This is the first time we've had everybody practice in a while. This was Antwon's best day by far."

The Eagles already have lost two conference road games, which equals the number they've lost in the past two seasons and is just one shy of the number they've dropped in the past three years. At High Point and at UNC Asheville, the stands were packed and the opposition was fired up to get a piece of the Eagles.

Peele is worried about a "hangover" from the UNCA game, but he's more concerned his players might not understand what the rest of the regular season may hold.

"In the last three years, we've been dominant in the league," Peele said, "and I think the players are finally starting to understand that every time we go on the road, the intensity level is going to be high and it's going to be like 'OK, it's payback time.'

"Now's their time. I think that's what every other team is feeling. On the road, we've got to play at a higher level."

The stands were loaded to the gills and the fans were loud at Asheville, and will likely be the same tonight in the band box called Kimbel Arena. There will be about 1,100 in the stands, just like Asheville, with the Coastal fans hoping to add some more misery to the Eagles' season.

Gaynor, who played 20 minutes in the 71-56 loss at Asheville, and his teammates will likely play tonight with the memory of the game fresh. He called the loss "an embarrassment."

"We embarrassed ourselves, our family and the fans who came up to see the game," Gaynor said. "It was supposed to be the premier game in the conference and it didn't look like that.

"I talked to my family after it was over and it was probably the worst game I've played since I've been at Winthrop."

And Gaynor, like fellow seniors Michael Jenkins, McCullough and Harris, can see the end of their careers.

"We've been seeing it since the start of the season," Gaynor said, "but we've got to play like it's the first game of our careers."

The Eagles beat Coastal 65-43 on Jan. 26, but the team the Eagles saw that night may not look like the team they'll face tonight. The day before their first meeting, Coastal lost 6-foot-3 guard Everage Richardson, who had an emergency appendectomy. Peele said he's heard conflicting reports about when Richardson will return, but they have him in the game plan.

Since the loss to the Eagles, Coastal coach Cliff Ellis has gone with a bigger lineup -- 6-5 Anthony Breeze, 6-5 Phil Wallace and 6-6 Logan Johnson up front, with 6-3 Jack Leasure and 6-0 Mario Sisinni at guard.

Winthrop beat the Chants 38-29 on the boards and had 17 offensive rebounds in the first game and will still have a size advantage inside. And they held the Chants to 36 percent shooting and limited Leasure to 18 tough points.

"We were not tough enough with the ball or tough enough boxing out," Ellis said after the loss. "We had too many turnovers (19) and gave up too many second-chance points (20)."

That's why Ellis tried to go with a bigger lineup.

The Chants took Asheville to the wire in a 56-52 loss at home in their next game and came from 17 down to beat Charleston Southern 85-78 in overtime in their last game.

And they're 9-2 at home this year.

But at this point in the season, preparation is more a matter of what the Eagles do than what the opposition does. Peele is looking for more intensity and energy than he saw at Asheville, along with more defense, better shot selection and fewer turnovers.

They also need wins if they want to keep UNC Asheville in sight and maintain any hope of finishing first in the regular season and getting home court advantage for the conference tournament.

"I told them these would be the toughest eight games of their life," Peele said, "and I believe that."


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