Quest for No. 1

Michael Jenkins and the Eagles would lock up the top seed in the Big South tournament with a win today.
Michael Jenkins and the Eagles would lock up the top seed in the Big South tournament with a win today.

By the time this day ends, the Big South Conference teams will have played a combined 112 games.

But the one that matters most happens at 4:30 this afternoon, when Winthrop (19-10, 10-3) hosts UNC Asheville (20-8, 9-4) in the matchup that decides the regular-season championship and the No. 1 seed for next week's conference tournament.

The two best teams in the league down to one game.

"It's appropriate," Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh said Tuesday, after Winthrop beat his Bucs 63-49, three days after they'd lost 85-73 at UNCA.

"We've had the good fortune of playing them on the road in back-to-back games," Radebaugh said, with a little smile. "It's the two best teams, the two most experienced teams and probably the two best defensive teams playing for the championship. That's the way it should be."

When the tournament opens Tuesday on the home courts of the top four seeds, Radebaugh will see one of them again. Winthrop and UNCA are assured of hosting first-round games and the Bucs are assured of finishing in eighth place and will play at the No. 1 seed. Heading into today, that's the only slot that has been determined.

That No. 1 seed and the chance to host every game of the league tournament is what matters most. The Bulldogs beat the Eagles 71-56 a month ago and would be the No. 1 seed with a win by virtue of a regular-season sweep.

"Bottom line," Winthrop coach Randy Peele told his team before practice on Thursday, "we win, we host the tournament."

After being behind three games at one point, just to come back and tie for the regular-season title would give the Eagles something to smile about, but they understand better than any team in the league the importance of being at home.

Winthrop, winning 56 of the last 59 games in the Winthrop Coliseum, has won three straight Big South titles in part by going 9-0 at home in the tournament. The tournament decides the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

"We know what we've got to do," Winthrop's Mantoris Robinson said, after the Charleston Southern win. "We have to come out and play Winthrop basketball. If we do, we'll win the conference (regular-season) championship."

It's an important day and could be emotional, too. It's the last regular-season home game for seniors Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris. Gaynor, Jenkins and McCullough have played on three Big South championship teams and Harris, a junior college transfer, one.

Jenkins (126) and Gaynor (124) have played in more games than any players in the history of the Big South. Jenkins, Gaynor and McCullough have played on teams that have compiled a 98-29 record, including an amazing 61-7 against the Big South.

They've won 23 straight at home against conference teams and three straight regular-season titles.

Few of those games have been as important as today's showdown.

In the first meeting, the Eagles went to Asheville with Gaynor, McCullough and Robinson slowed by the flu. The Eagles led 33-26 at the half, but ran out of gas in the second.

The Bulldogs' K.J. Garland had his best game against the Eagles, hitting 9-of-11 shots and scoring 26 points. Bryan Smithson added 14. Combined they were 14-of-21 from the floor, including 6-of-9 3-pointers, with 40 points, 13 assists and six steals. Each played 39 minutes.

In the three previous games against Winthrop, all losses, Garland and Smithson were a combined 28-of-79 shooting, including 9-of-34 3-pointers, for 83 points. In last year's game at Winthrop, they were 4-for-22, missed 9-of-10 3-pointers and scored 11 points.

But they were so good in the first game this season, 7-7 Kenny George didn't get off the bench.

After that game, Smithson suffered a sprained ankle and missed two games, George was sideline by sore knees and the Bulldogs went on a four-game losing streak that got Winthrop back in it.

Smithson and George are healthy again.

"It could be our guards against their guards," Peele said, "They have the ability to score and want the game in the high 70s or low 80s. We don't want that kind of game."

Winthrop's defense has been as good as ever in conference. Asheville's 71 points are the most the Eagles have allowed. In nine league games, they've held opponents under 60 points.

For Asheville and Winthrop, there is no mystery.

"We're in a position to control our own destiny," Peele said, "and it would be great to do that."