Cue the Darth Vader intro theme; it’s conference tournament time for Big South basketball.
All the hemming and hawing over the regular season really doesn’t matter in a one-NCAA bid league like the Big South. The only thing that matters is which team is grinning on the court next Sunday afternoon, its fans the only ones still in the stands gathered around, hugging and laughing and crying and snapping cell phone pics.
It’s the local hope that those fans are wearing garnet and gold this Sunday. Winthrop’s men haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2010, but, like five or six other teams in the Big South this year, the Eagles stand a decent shot of hitting the big-time this weekend in Conway, S.C.
To win the Big South this year Winthrop (17-12, No. 5 seed) would have to play three games in as many days. But getting out of the second round will be a serious challenge. The Eagles open the tournament Friday at 2 p.m., against Radford, which swept Kelsey’s team in the regular season. Still, history is on the Eagles’ side; Winthrop hasn’t lost to Radford in the Big South tournament since 1992, a span of six games.
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Securing a first round bye in the 11-team tournament was a positive first step toward securing the Holy Grail, especially based on last year’s experience when Winthrop had to play four games in five days and understandably ran out of batteries in a lopsided championship game loss to the hosts Coastal Carolina.
“We don’t make any excuses; Coastal kicked our tail and they got to represent our conference in the national tournament, but a lot of our shots were short and I think fresh legs can help a little bit on Sunday,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said last Saturday after his team’s regular season-closing win over Presbyterian.
During its run to the conference title game last March, Winthrop hit 20-of-46 shots from beyond the 3-point arc in its first three games. In the final against Coastal, the Eagles made just 8-of-26 from 3, and only 11-of-33 inside the arc. Their legs were shot; a bye this season should at least negate that possibility.
“It’s gonna do our bodies well,” redshirt senior Keon Moore said after the Presbyterian game. “It’s gonna give us time to prepare, and just focus in on this crucial part of the season. You can’t get these games back. We’re gonna do a good job as upperclassmen of reminding our underclassmen that this is very important.”
Winthrop women’s basketball has more than a few players - eight to be exact - that understand the finality of March. The Eagle women (17-12, No. 4 seed) will try and repeat as Big South champs after winning last year’s conference tournament and reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
The Eagles face No. 5 seed Campbell Thursday at 2 p.m. The two teams split in the regular season with each side winning on its home deck.
Coach Kevin Cook said Monday his team is feeling the importance of this special time of year, and that he was highly encouraged after their win over Presbyterian last Saturday to close out the regular season.
“We’ve got the urgency,” he said. “We’re on the up-tick.”