Eagles off life support, but need to take down Liberty

After losing at Coastal Carolina last week and falling three games behind, Winthrop's chances of catching UNC Asheville in the Big South Conference regular-season race looked little more than remote.

Thanks to Liberty's 83-54 pounding of the Bulldogs and the Eagles' 62-54 win over High Point on Feb. 9, it's a race again.

And no game in that race will be more important for the Eagles than tonight's trip to Liberty. The Eagles (15-9, 6-3) try to hold on to second place and keep Asheville (18-5, 7-1) in sight. Meanwhile, the Flames (13-11, 5-4), who are unbeaten at home, can get a piece of second with a win.

It's important because it's the next game in what could be an interesting stretch run if UNCA falters again.

"It's a big game in a lot of ways," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said. "They have four losses, we're 6-3. I'm not going to say it, but I know it's a big game."

On Wednesday, UNCA goes to High Point (13-10, 5-4) for another difficult road game. If things fall in place for the Eagles, they could be looking at a one-game deficit by Saturday, when they play Radford at home. After tonight, the Eagles play three of their final four league games in the Winthrop Coliseum.

While there's a lot of basketball to be played, tonight's result could have tie-breaking implications for seedings in the conference tournament. The top four finishers in the regular season host first-round tournament games.

But for now, the Eagles just have to go on the road and play well. They're 2-3 in league road games, 3-7 overall.

"Maybe we're just schizo," Peele joked, when talking about how much better his team is at home, particularly on defense.

There is one stunning statistic. In the second half of conference road games, teams have shot 50.8 percent, 50.9 percent on 3-pointers.

"We just play with more confidence and more aggresively at home," Peele said.

In Liberty, the Eagles are facing a team that has a personality just as split -- perhaps more so.

Coach Ritchie McKay's Flames have won five of their past seven, with that 29-point waxing of UNCA in front of 6,566 fans the most impressive. The Flames shot 67 percent in the second half, 56 percent for the game, got 50 points in the paint and hit 23 of their last 33 shots.

Defensively, they held Asheville guards Bryan Smithson and K.J. Garland to a combined 4-of-22 shooting and 14 points.

"Defensively, we were real unselfish," McKay told the Lynchburg News-Advance. "We had each other's backs better than we have all season. We know this was a real turning point in our season."

The Flames are 2-9 on the road and average 54.5 points, but at home, they're 11-0, average 75.4 points and shoot 52 percent overall and 42 percent on 3-pointers.

"Liberty is a very different team at home," Peele said. "We've got to go to work."

The Eagles beat the Flames at home 55-48, but never led by more than eight. It was a four-point game with three minutes to play.

They limited 6-foot-8 center Alex McLean to 10 points and nine rebounds, and he got only four in the final 10 minutes. Anthony Smith, a 6-5 junior, had 17, and he'll be a major focus tonight, with Mantoris Robinson drawing the defensive assignment.

The Flames threw a little of everything at the Eagles defensively, including their first look at a triangle-and-two, with Liberty's guards matching up against Chris Gaynor and Michael Jenkins. The Eagles have seen that defense at least four times since, with opponents eager to make someone other than Gaynor and Jenkins beat them.

Peele isn't sure what he'll see tonight, although he expects a faster tempo and more man-to-man from the Flames.

"But," he said, "I'm at the point where it's all about us. Let's go play and worry about getting better."

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Winthrop-Davidson on ESPN2, 7 p.m.

Winthrop will play Davidson on Feb. 22 in the ESPNU BracketBuster series. On Monday it was announced the game will be played at 7 p.m. and carried live nationally on ESPN2 (cable channel 28 in Rock Hill). Davidson leads the Southern Conference, while Winthrop is in second place in the Big South Conference. For ticket information, visit the Winthrop Coliseum box office or call 323-2129, ext. 2161.