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Winthrop's Byron Faison dunks over Radford's Martell McDuffy in the first half at the Winthrop Coliseum.
Winthrop's Byron Faison dunks over Radford's Martell McDuffy in the first half at the Winthrop Coliseum.

Playing like a team that knows it's one loss away from packing up the Nikes, Winthrop's Eagles suffocated Radford 76-45 on Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the Big South Conference tournament.

The Eagles, who have won three straight tournament titles, played like they're not ready to give back the trophy, like this one-and-done thing has hit home.

The seniors, who have three championship rings and set their goal on a fourth before this season began, said there was nothing special said before this one.

"We already knew what we had to do," senior Michael Jenkins said, "and we knew this might be our last home game. This is our last time to make a run and get to the NCAA tournament."

The Eagles came out rocking and ready to roll.

"The best thing we did," coach Randy Peele said, "is compete at a high level for 40 minutes."

Somehow, compete doesn't exactly describe it.

The Eagles held the Highlanders to 24 percent shooting, clubbed them on the boards 50-33, scored 19 points in transition, 38 in the paint and got 40 out of the bench in improving to 20-11, the team's fourth straight 20-win season.

It was Winthrop's 10th straight tournament win, tying a league record.

The Eagles advance to Thursday's 6 p.m. semifinals against High Point (17-13), a 59-56 quarterfinal winner over Coastal Carolina. UNC Asheville, an 87-63 winner over Charleston Southern, and Liberty, which topped VMI 103-88, meet in the 8:30 p.m. game. Both will be played in the Justice Center on UNCA 'scampus.

For the first time in their careers, the Winthrop seniors will have to win at least the semifinals away from the home court. They've gone 9-0 in the Winthrop Coliseum the past three years.

To going on the road, the Eagles say so be it.

"Everybody's tough at home," Jenkins said, "but we've been road warriors, and we know what it takes to win on the road. We have the experience."

And if they continue to play the way they did against the Highlanders, they'll have the game, too.

The Eagles reached all of their defensive goals they set before the game of drawing four charges, holding the Highlanders to 55 points or fewer and under 40 percent shooting.

All that helped the offense.

Everything seemed to flow for the Eagles, who shot 49 percent and had 20 assists on 30 field goals. Peele played all 13 players, all but one scored and all but two had at least one assist. Every player had at least one rebound.

"We were really unselfish," Peele said. "We really shared the ball. And when we get some baskets in transition, we're pretty good."

There were no real stars for the Eagles, just a collective effort.

Jenkins scored 12 points, but played just 10 minutes because of foul problems. Senior Antwon Harris came off the bench and scored 14 and Byron Faison, taking over for Jenkins, had 12. Andy Buechert had seven rebounds and three blocks. George Valentine had six points and eight rebounds in a season-high 32 minutes.

The Eagles bolted out of the blocks quickly, going up 9-0 with four points in transition. They held the Highlanders to eight field goals in the first half in building a 37-23 lead.

They didn't let up when the second half started, outscoring the Highlanders 11-0 in three minutes to go up 48-23.

It seemed every Radford shot was contested, and when the shots missed, the Eagles gobbled up the rebounds. Peele used the three-headed defensive pressure of Charles Corbin, Buechert and Valentine on 6-foot-8 Joey Lynch-Flohr and held him to seven points. When he did catch the ball on the low block, Lynch-Flohr was surrounded by defenders.

"We didn't do a good job of passing out of the double teams, including me," Lynch-Flohr said.

But Martell McDuffy, a junior who's seen the Eagles a few times in the past three seasons, was more impressed.

"It was probably right up there," McDuffy said, when asked to compare Winthrop's defense with some of their past performances. "They turned it up another notch for playoff basketball. It's probably the best I've seen."

Radford coach Brad Greenberg, finishing his first season, said the Eagles "played a marvelous game."

"Their defense forced us into tough shots," he said, "and kept us from getting to the basket. We had two very poor shooting halves."

It was made equally tough by the absence of leading scorer Kenny Thomas. Thomas played 10 minutes in the first half on a badly sprained ankle, but couldn't go in the second half.

"That makes it tough, when you need to make that extra pass to get a shot," Greenberg said.

The Eagles split the regular-season series with High Point, each team winning at home. But Peele isn't as concerned about the opponent as about how his team reacts.

"Right now, there are two kinds of teams," he said. "There are those who look tight and those who look confident. I'm excited about this time of year. We play High Point, so let's go."

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