Sports

Winthrop Denver-bound

Seniors Chris Gaynor, left, and Antwon Harris, right, celebrate with the other Winthrop Eagles at the Winthrop Coliseum after getting a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament to play Washington State in Denver.
Seniors Chris Gaynor, left, and Antwon Harris, right, celebrate with the other Winthrop Eagles at the Winthrop Coliseum after getting a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament to play Washington State in Denver.

A few days ago, when asked what seed he thought his team would get in the NCAA tournament, Winthrop coach Randy Peele said he expected a 14, maybe a 15.

He also said, if the Eagles got a 13 seed, he'd "do back flips down Main Street."

Peele backtracked on that pledge Sunday night, after the Eagles (22-11) came up with what he hopes will be a lucky No. 13 for the NCAA tournament that begins Thursday in Denver, Colo.

The Eagles will travel west for the second straight year, this time to face the fourth-seeded Washington State Cougars (24-8) out of the Pac-10 Conference at the Pepsi Center in the opening round of the East Regional.

The winner advances to Saturday's second round to face the winner of No. 5-seeded Notre Dame (24-7) and No. 12 George Mason (23-10). The Eagles beat Notre Dame in the first round last March in Spokane, Wash.

Winthrop's game on Thursday will be at 7:20 p.m.

While Peele was all smiles on Sunday night, as he and the Eagles celebrated at the Winthrop Coliseum along with more than 1,000 fans, he wasn't about to try his gymnastics skills.

"No flips," he said, laughing.

But you could tell he liked where his Eagles landed in the 65-team field.

"If you asked me Friday, I would have said we'd probably be a 14," Peele said, "but with some of the upsets in other conferences, I was saying maybe we could be a 13.

"I think we got about as fortunate a matchup as we could get. This is a great matchup. It's similar to when we played Gonzaga (in 2005) and last year to playing Notre Dame."

Peele said he didn't know a lot about the Cougars, coached by Tony Bennett, other than, like his own team, they play good defense and have a veteran lineup.

"But," he said, "I'm sure we've already got film on them."

The Cougars finished tied for third with Southern Cal in the rugged Pac-10, behind UCLA and Stanford. The Cougars were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament by Stanford, 75-68.

The Eagles and Cougars played one common opponent this season. Winthrop lost to Baylor 62-54 in the finals of the Paradise Jam, while the Cougars beat Baylor 67-64 on the road.

Bennett, in his second season with the Cougars, returned four starters from last year's 26-8 team that lost to Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAAs. He starts three seniors and two juniors, led by senior guards Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, who have started every game and play more than 30 minutes per game.

"This team has been together for quite awhile," Bennett said on the team's Web site Sunday. "We've done it one time and we have experienced guys, so hopefully that will help us.

"They played in the tournament last year so they'll have experience," Bennett said of Winthrop. "They have been an excellent mid-major program over the last number of years."

While Peele didn't have a scouting report ready on Sunday night, senior guard Michael Jenkins was down with his Cougars.

"I'm a basketball fan," said Jenkins, who had the championship net from last week's Big South Conference Tournament still stuffed in his back pocket. "I watch everybody. Washington State is just like us, except they're from a BCS conference.

"They've got a big man in the middle, (6-10, 270) Kyle Baynes, and their guards are great. Low is really good, and they've got a defensive stopper, Kyle Weaver, just like we've got Mantoris (Robinson). I think he'll be on me.

"And their point guard (Taylor Rochestie), I can't remember his name, but he's very good."

All the Eagles were upbeat about their seeding, which is second only to last year's No. 11 seed in their NCAA history.

"We'd been projected anywhere from a 14 to a 15, maybe even a 16," Jenkins said, "but I knew we were too good to be a 16. I'm happy we're a 13. Washington State will be a good matchup."

Last March, the Eagles seemed to be the pick to spring a first-round tournament upset, and they did, which means the Washington State coaching staff and players aren't likely to be sleeping on the Eagles.

"We don't expect that anymore," Jenkins said, "but we're the kind of team nobody wants to play in March."

Jenkins added the Eagles "won't do anything out of the ordinary. We'll just be Winthrop."

And senior point guard Chris Gaynor, who will be starting an NCAA tournament game for the fourth straight year, was his usual positive self.

"Anything's possible," he said. "We know we can do it. We've just got to go out there and stay focused."

Peele said the Eagles will fly to Denver on Tuesday in order to get in some practice time and be in town for the mandatory practices and media commitments on Wednesday.

But after what's gone on with the Eagles since last spring, he and his team could probably have flown to Denver on Sunday night -- without the plane.

"I felt like there was a sense this year of redemption and payback for our program," Peele said, citing the exit of former coach Gregg Marshall, the death of De'Andre Adams last May, a handful of disappointing losses out of the league and slow start in the conference as adversity the team faced and beat.

"When we lost here to UNC Asheville on March 1," Peele said, "I think there was a sense that this year it (Winthrop's NCAA run) was going to stop.

"They said it couldn't be done. Well, guess what. Things didn't change and we're in our rightful place."

WASHINGTON STATE AT A GLANCE

• Location: Pullman, Wash.

• Nickname: Cougars

• Enrollment: 24,396

• Conference: Pac-10

• Conference finish: 11-7, T3rd

• Overall record: 24-8

• NCAA history: Sixth NCAA berth; reached second round in 2007, losing to Vanderbilt 78-74 in double OT; won 1941 national title.

• Head coach: Tony Bennett, 2nd season, 50-16 overall.

• Starters: C Aron Baynes 6-10 270 Jr. (10.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg); F Robbie Cowgill 6-10 211 Sr. (7.1 ppg, 5 rpg); G Derrick Low 6-2 196 Sr. (14.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg); G Taylor Rochestie 6-1 196 Jr. (11 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Kyle Weaver 6-6 201 Sr. (12.1 ppg, 5 rpg).

• Did you know: The Cougars return four starters from last season.

• Web site: wsucougars.com

INSIDE

• NCAA overview • 3B

• Capsules on all 65 teams, bracket • 6B-7B

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