Bad ending doesn't mar Eagles' solid year

DENVER -- The basketball season ended for Winthrop on Thursday night in the kind of disheartening fashion the players will remember for a long, long time.

You don't fight and sweat through 33 games, claw your way back to the NCAA tournament to get hammered 71-40 by Washington State in the first round of the East Regional.

Nothing could have been in starker contrast to last March, when the Eagles celebrated a win over Notre Dame in the first round, than what happened in the Pepsi Center.

Shot after shot by the Cougars went down and shot after shot by the Eagles either clanged off the rim or found nothing but air.

The final score looked like those NCAA games Winthrop played years ago -- the 47-point loss to Duke in 2002, the 41-point drubbing against Auburn in 1999, the 24-point loss to Oklahoma in 2000.

Those results weren't surprising. This one was. No one expected a 31-point loss, least of all the Winthrop players and coaches. And when they walked off the floor Thursday night, they knew the scoreboard did not reflect their ability or heart or effort.

Just one of those nights? It sure was.

A nightmare.

But the other thing the scoreboard did not reflect was the season, and in a couple of days when the sting of getting waxed in the last game of the season goes away, the players will look back and understand just how far they came.

The Eagles finished 22-12, the program's fourth straight 20-win season. They tied for the Big South regular-season title for the fourth straight year, won their fourth straight Big South tournament.

Went to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year.

Seniors Chris Gaynor, Taj McCullough and Michael Jenkins will have a championship ring for four fingers.

There were many who didn't think those things would happen again. When Gregg Marshall left town and Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams graduated, some thought the Winthrop mojo was gone.

This team didn't have the talent of the past three, but it had the will to use what it had and four seniors who had learned it by winning.

Randy Peele, in his first year as the Eagles' coach, had already thought about all of that before Thursday night. He mentioned it last Sunday in the euphoria of Selection Sunday, when the players saw the Winthrop name flash on the TV screen and they celebrated a fourth straight trip to the tournament.

"After what this team went through in the past year, if someone asked me if it over achieved or under achieved, I'd tell them we over achieved," Peele said.

He repeated that assessment on Thursday night.

"In my heart I don't think there's any question," he said, as he sat and stared into the glare of the TV lights and fielded questions for the two or three reporters who remained at the postgame press conference.

"The sad part about today is, what really hurts me is that you've got four seniors in terms of the way they're going out. It just breaks your heart. One of the things that I try to do with them afterwards, in terms of being grown men, is how we handle this."

The Eagles handled a lot in the last 12 months.

"This team's been hit," Peele said. "I feel like a boxer who's been in a heavyweight fight for 34 games, and for 34 games we stepped up."

He then rattled off all the things the team had to overcome from losing key players from last year, to the death of De'Andre Adams, to kids leaving the program, to another quitting the team on the first day of school.

And handling the best shot of every team in the Big South Conference when all those teams believed this would be the year the Eagles wouldn't win it.

"For this team to handle all that and to be regular-season and tournament champion of the Big South and earn a fourth straight bid to the NCAA tournament, absolutely, I'm proud of them," Peele said.

Peele felt for his seniors, as coaches always do.

Gaynor, McCullough and Jenkins have been around for four years and more than 100 wins. They averaged 25 wins a year for four years. Antwon Harris was around for two years and 51 wins.

But none of those years was as tough as this one.

Peele called it "being issued a challenge."

And with challenges, you can always look back and understand how you did. You know failure when you see it.

"You know," Peele said, "today, we didn't get it done. But in terms of if you look back on this season and what this team has done, I don't think there's any question they not only have gotten it done, but they've gotten it done under the most adverse of conditions.

"I'm proud of them."