Winthrop's Charles Corbin's shot is rejected by UNC Asheville's Kenny George in the first half.
Winthrop's Charles Corbin's shot is rejected by UNC Asheville's Kenny George in the first half.

In the Winthrop locker room on Saturday, there were more than 50 sheets of paper taped on the wall bearing the letters FTJ.

Finish the job.

The job was beat UNC Asheville, clinch the Big South Conference regular-season championship and the No.1 seed for next week's conference tournament.

But with the Eagles unable to finish the job on the offensive end of the floor and unable to finish a defensive possession when they needed it most, UNC Asheville ran to a 63-50 win and right into the favorite's role for the tournament.

The two tied for the regular-season title at 10-4, but because the Bulldogs (21-8) swept Winthrop (19-11) in the regular-season series, they get the No. 1 seed and the chance to host every game they play in the tournament in the cozy, 1,100 -seat Justice Center where they've lost twice this year.

The Bulldogs got 25 points from Bryan Smithson, 21 in the last 14 minutes, and 23 important minutes from 7-foot-7 Kenny George to win in the Winthrop Coliseum for the first time since the 1997-98 season.

"I've said all along you can't win the championship until you beat Winthrop, because that's where the championship goes through," Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said. "They've done it so many times."

Winthrop coach Randy Peele was hoping they'd win one more regular-season title outright and get the tournament at home.

"This was a God-awful day for us," he said. "We're regular-season champions with them, but that's not what we're about."

Winthrop has won the last three Big South tournaments, all of them at home, and they'll host a first-round game on Tuesday, against either VMI or Radford. UNC Asheville hosts No. 8 seed Charleston Southern.

Some familiar problems popped up for the Eagles on Saturday, the biggest being an inability to make shots. While Peele felt his team got plenty of good looks, most of the shots rattled out.

It was an especially long day for seniors Michael Jenkins, Chris Gaynor, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris, who were a combined 11-of-36 for 29 points as the Eagles shot 32 percent. The 50 points was their third-lowest point total of the year and second-lowest in league play.

"We had open looks we didn't make," Peele said.

None was bigger than Byron Faison's missed 3-pointer from the corner, after the Eagles had come from nine down to tie the score at 30 with 13:26 left. After an Asheville turnover, the Eagles pushed the ball up court and Faison, who seconds earlier had stroked a 3-pointer to tie the score at 27, got a good look that rattled inside the rim and popped out.

"That was a big shot, big possession," Peele said. "After that, Smithson took over the game."

The Bulldogs scored on eight straight possessions to go up 49-36. Smithson made a 3-pointer from the top of the key, with Gaynor in his face, another with two seconds left on the shot clock and Mantoris Robinson all over him, a layup down the lane on a pass from George and a two-pointer on an up-and-under move against Robinson just inside the 3-point line.

"He got in a zone," Jenkins said.

"Sometimes you have to take tough shots," Biedenbach said. "That's why good teams win games."

Except for going on that 12-3 run that tied the game at 30, the Eagles didn't make the big shots they needed. They trailed 24-16 at the half by taking too many perimeter jumpers, and when George came in the game and the Bulldogs went zone, the Winthrop offense became, for the most part, a passing drill around the perimeter.

"His presence bothered us," Peele said, "but we adjusted in the second half and had some open shots we didn't make. We just didn't make enough shots."

They didn't stop enough, either. Asheville shot 46.5 percent for the game, including 52 percent in the second half. That's the highest shooting percentage the Eagles have allowed at home this season.

Smithson was 4-of-5 in the second half and hit all his 13 free throws. He and backcourt mate K.J. Garland each played 40 minutes.

They keyed the Asheville defense.

"Defense was a very important part of it," Biedenbach said. "Winthrop is a very good defensive team and we had to match or better their defensive effort. That's what the guys did."

Now, the question for Winthrop becomes can it bounce back, and can it win a championship somewhere other than the Winthrop Coliseum.

"This is tough," Jenkins said. "It's hard to even talk about. We've always said we want the seniors to go out with a championship. This was a tough one to lose.

"But we know what's at stake to win another championship. We play here Tuesday, then probably go to Asheville and maybe play them again."

Peele said he's concerned about how his team will bounce back, and rightfully so.

"We won't know until tomorrow," he said. "But I told the guys it's survive and advance and we've got to get ourselves mentally ready to play.

"The bottom line is the NCAA tournament bid wasn't decided tonight."

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