CONWAY -- The hole Winthrop's Eagles have dug for themselves in the Big South Conference race got a lot deeper Wednesday, when Coastal Carolina survived a last-second shot by the Eagles' Michael Jenkins and held on for a 50-49 win.
The hole is now three games deep, with the Eagles at 5-3 in the league and looking up at unbeaten UNC Asheville (7-0). And the loss makes Saturday's game with High Point all the bigger, with the Panthers beating Liberty to tie the Eagles for second place.
"There was not a lot I could say to them," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said, his sweat-soaked blue shirt speaking volumes about the game's intensity and importance. "It's not over. There's a lot of basketball to be played."
But the impact of the loss could be seen after Jenkins' 12-footer from the left of the lane glanced off the rim. Byron Faison fell face-first to the floor at the top of the key and Jenkins went down on his hands and knees in front of the Winthrop bench as the Coastal Carolina fans stormed the court to celebrate the Chants' second straight league win.
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The Eagles went ahead 49-48 with 1:12 seconds to go when Chris Gaynor made a pair of clutch free throws. And the Eagles seemed to get control when Gaynor stole the ball from Mario Sisinni.
But with the shot clock running down, Faison, who had hit three crucial shots, passed up an open look at the top of the key and the best shot the Eagles could get was a 3-pointer in the deep corner from Mantoris Robinson.
"That wasn't the shot we wanted," Peele said.
Coastal coach Cliff Ellis called time with 20.3 seconds to go and knew exactly what he wanted -- 6-foot-5 freshman Anthony Breeze with the ball in his hands and chance to create.
"We wanted him to get it and face up," Ellis said.
The Chants (11-10, 4-4 Big South) spread the floor and got Breeze the ball at the free throw line. He faked and drove against 6-9 Andy Buechert, who fouled him. Breeze calmly made both free throws with 6.1 seconds left.
After a couple of timeouts, Winthrop had the ball with 4.7 seconds to go in front of its own bench. Jenkins curled off a baseline screen and got a good shot, but it came up short and the Eagles couldn't get the rebound.
The possession was the only time all night Coastal came out of its triangle-and-two defense, designed to stop Jenkins and Gaynor.
"We felt like he'd probably get it," Ellis said. "In the huddle, I asked the guys what they wanted to do and we went man-to-man."
Ellis said the junk defense was his only resort to try and slow down the Eagles. And it worked. Jenkins finished 3-for-12 and Gaynor got just two shots. The Eagles made 20-of-60 shots and missed 14 of their 18 3-pointers.
Many of the shots came quickly. While a lot of them were open, the Eagles never took the time to probe the defense and get something better. Coastal also did a great job on the boards, winning that battle 41-33, with Breeze getting nine, Logan Johnson and Jack Leasure eight each.
Coastal also made a lot of hustle plays running down loose balls and beating the Eagles to rebounds.
"We talked about that," Peele said, "but they beat us to a lot of balls in the first half. But after 12 minutes or so I thought we got that under control."
Defensively, the Eagles played well enough to win, holding Leasure to 3-of-15 shooting and nine points. But Breeze and Johnson combined for 31 points and 17 rebounds to offset that.
"They had played Asheville a 56-52 game," Peele said, "and my fear was this would be that kind of game, and it was."
And he also feared another second-half swoon, and that happened, too.
After going up 29-19 on the first possession of the second half, Coastal went on an 18-6 run, hitting 8-of-11 shots on its way to shooting 52 percent in the second half. Six of the buckets were either layups, scores off post moves or offensive rebounds.
Matt Brennan's layup with just over 10 minutes to go gave Coastal a 37-35 lead and set up the finish.
The miss at the end set up what will be an interesting stretch run for the Eagles, who have lost three league games for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
"We still had a chance to win it," Peele said. "We got a great look, but it just didn't go down.
"It's a tough loss."
Gary McCann • 329-4074