ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Winthrop's players walked off the Justice Center court on Thursday night after a convincing 61-53 win over High Point in the Big South Tournament semifinals and just for an instant almost celebrated.
There were a couple of fingers flashing the No. 1 sign to the fans, but for the most part it was business as usual, because there's one game left, the most important one in a long season, and they know they have a chance to finish the season the way they planned.
"One more game," a couple of them said.
On Saturday at 11:30 a.m on national television (ESPN2), they take on UNC Asheville (23-8), a 75-57 winner over Liberty, for the Big South title and the right to go to the NCAA tournament. For the Eagles (21-11), who have won three straight titles, the only thing new is the venue. They'll have to win it on UNC Asheville's home court.
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Seniors Chris Gaynor and Michael Jenkins, part of Winthrop's recent title run the past three seasons, know the routine. The win was the 100th in their careers, but number 101 is the biggest, which is why they didn't do a lot of dancing around and chest-pounding after they locked down the Panthers with another smothering defensive effort.
"The seniors have made it a point all year to get that fourth ring," Gaynor said. "Anything less is unacceptable."
"We have an opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament and finish as champs," Jenkins said.
And that's the way they approached their third meeting with the Panthers, coming out of the dressing room ready to play and sending a first-half message the Panthers had no answer for.
"It boils down simply," High Point coach Bart Lundy said. "They played harder, more physical. They came out and pushed us around and we didn't respond."
The Eagles held the Panthers to 34-percent shooting, whacked them on the boards 35-30, scored 30 points in the paint, 16 off 12 turnovers and 14 on fast breaks.
Mantoris Robinson, with some help, harassed Arizona Reid into a 21-point night, three below his average, but he had to take 27 tough shots to get those points.
Reid said he "just missed some open looks."
"Just wasn't my night," said Reid, who closed his High Point career without ever playing in a Big South final. It was the third straight year the Panthers lost in the semifinals.
And Mike Jefferson, who drilled the Eagles with 23 points in their first regular-season game and 18 in the first half of their second, was stopped cold by Jenkins. Jefferson had one shot in the first half, didn't have a field goal until five minutes into the second half and finished with nine points.
"He lit us up in the first game and had 18 in the first half in the second game," Jenkins said. "I'm 6-3, he's 5-9. I tried to use my length and be aggressive."
Eugene Harris had 21, but neither he nor Reid, when the Panthers cut into the lead in the second half, could come up with the shot to swing momentum.
"The biggest thing," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said, "was we set the tone in the first half."
After falling behind 5-0, the Eagles stepped on the gas and ran to a 12-5 lead. It was 13-10 when the Eagles hit overdrive, going on a 20-5 run to build a 33-15 lead and push the Panthers into a hole they wouldn't get out of.
Byron Faison came off the bench to hit a 3-pointer to start the surge, center Andy Buechert scored eight straight points on strong post moves and Jenkins came up with back-to-back steals that led to layups.
Meanwhile, the Panthers couldn't get an open look, especially Reid. And Jefferson was missing in action with Jenkins locking him down.
"He's a good defender and very athletic," Jefferson said. "I was trying to run the team in the first half and didn't do a very good job."
For the second time in three meetings this season, the Eagles held the Panthers to a season-low 18 first half points. But unlike the first game, when the Eagles led at the half by three, they owned a 33-18 edge this time.
At the half, Lundy didn't spend much time with Xs and Os. Rather, he challenged his team to play harder.
They did and went to a zone that took the Eagles out of their offensive rhythm, but even though they got the lead under double figures five times in the last six minutes, the Panthers couldn't come up with the play they needed.
"You've got to be perfect when you're down 18," Lundy said.
The Eagles' nearly perfect first half was enough.
"Harris hit some dagger 3s," Jenkins said, "and we were up only six or seven, but I've never thought we'd lose control of the game."
With Winthrop up 59-49 with seven minutes left, Harris missed an open 3-pointer. With Winthrop up 50-41, Jenkins swatted Jefferson's 3-pointer out of bounds, and Jefferson then turned it over, leading a Jenkins' bucket.
And with Winthrop up 52-43, Reid missed in close and Earnest Bridges missed a tap.
Harris finally hit back-to-back 3-pointers that cut the lead to 56-49 with 37 seconds left, and the Panthers sent the Eagles to the free throw line.
But in the final 1:15, the Eagles, not the best free-throw shooting team, made 8-of-10, with Robinson hitting 5-of-6.
"We had some chances offensively and defensively," Lundy said, "but we couldn't make a play."
One game away from the title, Peele likes what he's seeing from his team, especially Gaynor and Jenkins who, he said "played with poise."
"You have to have a mindset when you get to the tournament," Peele said. "Some teams are tight, others play loose and confident. I like where we are.
"But we've still got to attack."