Sports

Eagles face Bulldogs again, this time with NCAA bid on the line

Winthrop's Antwon Harris reacts at the end of Thursday's semifinal matchup between the Eagles and High Point. Winthrop will face UNC Asheville today with a shot at its fourth straight Big South tournament title and NCAA tournament bid.
Winthrop's Antwon Harris reacts at the end of Thursday's semifinal matchup between the Eagles and High Point. Winthrop will face UNC Asheville today with a shot at its fourth straight Big South tournament title and NCAA tournament bid.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- On Friday morning, the Winthrop coaching staff was holed up in a room in the team's hotel. They were going through the video of last Saturday's game against UNC Asheville looking for something new, some edge they could get heading into today's 11:30 a.m. Big South Conference Tournament championship game.

Coach Randy Peele went to the board in front of the room and began sketching Xs and Os for this play and that. Every time he'd get to Kenny George, he seemed to draw the "X" a lot bigger, as if to emphasize just how much larger the 7-foot-7, 375-pound UNCA center is than anyone else in college basketball.

And how big he might be today.

He's been big all season.

When asked what the difference between this year's team and last year's that finished 12-19, UNCA coach Eddie Biedenbach had a succinct answer.

"Kenny."

Just how to attack George, who averages 12.4 points and seven rebounds, and the zone defense will be key, when the Eagles (21-11) go for their fourth straight tournament championship and bid to the NCAA tournament.

In winning the past three titles, the Eagles haven't faced an opponent as formidable as the Bulldogs (23-8), who beat them twice in the regular season and will be favored today playing on their home court, the sold-out Justice Center.

Peele said, when the Bulldogs walked off the court after their semifinal win over Liberty on Thursday night, that the Asheville players "looked like they expected to win."

But, he added, "we did, too."

So, he was hoping Friday's meticulous preparation would provide the edge.

"We've got to hit 15-17-foot shots," Peele said. "And they've scored off our mistakes in the first two games. We've got to figure out how to score against them."

The video session went on until the team left in the early afternoon for a light, 90-minute practice where they added a couple of wrinkles, went over Asheville's tendencies one more time and generally tried to get into the right frame of mind for the season's most important game.

What goes on between the ears of Winthrop's players could be as much a factor as George.

"The mindset when you get to the tournament," Peele said, "is usually one of two things. You have teams that tighten up, and you have those who are loose and confident. I like where we are right now."

Where they are is one win away from capping the best four-year run in the history of the Big South. Going into today, the Eagles have won 100 games over the past four years, with those three titles. With a win, the program would claim its eighth title in the past 10 years.

The two years they didn't win -- 2003 and 2004 -- the team that knocked them out of the tournament was UNC Asheville.

But that was the year before seniors Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins and Taj McCullough arrived. They're looking for a fourth championship ring today.

"I've tried to tell the team the last few days," Gaynor said, "that we've got to stay hungry, got to play our type game. We've built a championship tradition, and the seniors made a pact to get that fourth ring."

To get it, they have to deal with George, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the 75-57 semifinal win. George played 24 minutes and his presence forced the Flames to try things outside their normal offensive attack.

"They shot 30 3s," Peele told his team during Friday's practice. "We don't play that way. People have lost to them because they don't attack them. We have to attack."

That could mean the Eagles will challenge George, who camps out in the lane, spreads his arms and dares anyone to take a shot from 15 feet and closer. The Eagles didn't attack George in regular-season losses of 15 and 13 points, but became a jump-shooting team that made just 37 percent of its shots and 3-pointers. Making some mid-range jumpers, especially when George is in, was high on the priority list on Friday.

But while George drew a good part of the attention in preparation, Peele said the game would "come down to our guards against their guards."

In the two regular-season games, Asheville's Bryan Smithson and K.J. Garland got the better of Gaynor and Jenkins. Smithson and Garland combined for 36 points per game and were lights out from the perimeter. Both were deadly in the second half, when the Bulldogs outscored the Eagles a combined 84-57 in the two games.

Gaynor and Jenkins have been outstanding in two tournament games and have been down this road before.

"We've been on top, and we'll do what it takes to make that happen again," Jenkins said.

Starting with the defense.

In the two games against Asheville, Winthrop's defense has not done the job. While its given up an average of 58.5 points, Asheville averaged 67. The Eagles have held everyone else to 39-percent shooting overall and 31 percent on 3-pointers. Asheville shot 49 percent overall and buried 13-of-28 3s, 46 percent.

"They believe they can beat us," Peele said.

But Peele, who says he "could make coffee nervous," seemed a little more loose on Friday.

"I'm excited about it," he said, "and I have no doubt we are good enough to get it done."

The Winthrop Coliseum will host a viewing of today's Big South Conference Tournament championship game between the Eagles and UNC Asheville. Doors to the coliseum open at 11 a.m, with tipoff at 11:30. Admission is free.

• Gary McCann column • 1A

• Winthrop gameday • 2D

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