Sports

Disappointing finish can be forgotten at BSC tourney

One of the most difficult things about playing and coaching in a conference like the Big South is knowing no matter how good your regular season might be, it and your NCAA tournament chances can all be blown away because your team doesn't win its conference tournament.

Such is life in a one-bid league.

But one of the beauties of playing in a conference like the Big South is knowing that no matter how disappointing your regular-season finish might have been, you can change all of that with one good one week, three games of good basketball.

UNC Asheville's Bulldogs came to the Winthrop Coliseum on Saturday and did what they had to do. They thumped the Eagles 63-50 to tie for the regular-season title and gain the all-important No. 1 seed for the conference tournament that begins this week.

As the clock wound down, the knot of Asheville fans who were part of the crowd of 6,043, fifth-largest in Coliseum history, chanted "This is our house!" It was the second time in a week -- Davidson the other -- that chant rained down on the Eagles.

The Bulldogs, getting a piece of a regular-season title for the first time since 2002, celebrated. Even though they tied for the regular-season crown, they had their photo taken on the court with the trophy and in the locker room.

No photos for the Eagles. They aren't used to sharing conference titles with anyone and want no part of half of something.

"We're sharing a conference championship, and that's not what we're about," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said.

A few days earlier, he had said "this program is all about winning championships," and walking off the floor on Saturday with a share of a regular-season title wasn't what he was talking about.

By Peele's standards, and those of seniors Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris, the regular season was a disappointment. Too many close losses, too many games when the ball couldn't find the basket, too many games when just a play here or there would have made a difference.

Just think. If Harris had made that shot at the buzzer at High Point or Jenkins had canned that one at Coastal Carolina, the Eagles wouldn't even have been in position to get caught on Saturday.

Peele will be the first to admit 11 losses are too many. He still worries about those ugly losses to Missouri State, Mount St. Mary's and Marshall. Nothing rankles Peele more than losing.

Unless it's giving up.

And that's what the Eagles can't do now just because they probably won't have the chance to host every game they play in the league tournament, as they have the past three seasons.

It's still possible for the finals to be in the Winthrop Coliseum. If Asheville loses in the quarterfinals or semifinals, the championship game would be played at the highest remaining seed.

But that's something the Eagles can't count on. They just have to find a way to get things going by Tuesday, when Radford, a team they struggled with a couple of weeks ago, comes to town.

Nothing is certain in a league like the Big South.

Ask the Bulldogs.

When they tied Winthrop for the regular-season title in 2002, they lost in the first round of the conference tournament to High Point. Winthrop won the championship. In 1998, the Bulldogs won the league outright, but lost to Radford in the tournament finals.

Ask Radford.

The Highlanders won the regular season in 2000 and lost to UNCA in the tournament semifinals. Winthrop, which finished second, beat UNCA in the finals.

And ask Winthrop.

The Eagles won the regular season by three games in 2003 but were upset in the tournament semifinals by UNCA, which won the tournament as a No. 5 seed.

In the 22-year history of the Big South tournament, the No. 1 seed has won the championship 11 times.

Half the titles have been won by teams that did not win the regular season, although it hasn't happened since 2003.

It's leagues like the Big South that epitomize the term "March Madness."

One of the interesting elements of this week becomes how the Bulldogs handle the favorite's role. While they are assured of at least an NIT bid, the NCAA slot is what they want.

If they beat Charleston Southern in the first round, they'll face either Liberty or VMI in the semis. Liberty played them close at Asheville, beat them handily at home. VMI lost in overtime at home, thrashed them in the Justice Center.

With Asheville and Winthrop losing four league games, the rest of the teams have to feel pretty good about their chances.

The Eagles should just be thankful for another chance.

"We have to be resilient," Peele said. "I think we'll respond. Now, it's one and done."

On Jan. 12, when Winthrop opened the Big South regular season at High Point, the Eagles lost. And the Panthers and their fans danced at midcourt as though a title had been won. The Panthers were the preseason favorites, but, despite that opening-night dance, struggled to finish third, two games behind the Eagles and UNCA.

That night, Peele said "championships aren't won on January 12th."

And Saturday, after the disappointment of losing a chance to win the regular-season title, Peele said "the NCAA tournament bid wasn't decided tonight."

In this thing of beauty called the Big South.

BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT

Quarterfinals

Tuesday, 7 p.m.

No. 7 Radford (10-19, 5-9) at No. 2 Winthrop (19-11, 10-4)

No. 6 Coastal Carolina (11-14, 6-8) at No. 3 High Point (16-13, 8-6)

No. 8 Charleston Southern (10-19, 4-10) at No. 1 UNC Asheville (21-8, 10-4)

No. 5 VMI (14-14, 6-8) at No. 4 Liberty (15-15, 7-7)

Semifinals

Thursday

at UNC Asheville

Winner 2-7 vs. Winner 3-6, 6 p.m.

Winner 1-8 vs. Winner 4-5, 8 p.m.

Championship

Saturday

at highest remaining seed, 11:30 a.m.

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