Well after Winthrop won the Big South men’s basketball championship on Sunday afternoon, athletic trainer Jeff Lahr entered the Coliseum with a lit cigar to hearty laughs from the few remaining people in the building.
The Eagles are going back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years and the relief was palpable to anyone paying attention. Lahr enjoying a stogie was symbolic. After months of building pressure, after three years of reaching the conference tournament final only to fall flat, Winthrop’s players, coaches, support staff and family and friends could relax and enjoy a lovely March evening, knowing there was still some ball to play in the Big Dance in just over a week.
It was special. Last time I’ll be here in a Winthrop uniform and taking down our nets - nobody’s gonna use that net again - it’s special.
Winthrop senior Keon Johnson, who was named MVP of the Big South Conference tournament Sunday.
“Because there’s all those banners there is a lot of pressure. And we didn’t talk about the pressure. I didn’t and they didn’t but it was there. It was real,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “You can have a great season like we’ve had, but the reality in the outside world, it probably would have been considered — failure might be a bad word — but it was like ‘championship and NCAA tournament or bust.’”
“I knew when I walked in the locker room today that this was a determined bunch that wasn’t gonna be denied.”
That’s the reality of a one-NCAA Tournament bid league like the Big South, and the reality of coaching/playing at Winthrop. The previous nine NCAA tourney berths came under Gregg Marshall and Randy Peele and the wait for a 10th had stretched on longer than anyone would have anticipated in 2010.
Over 5,000 people showed up Sunday, many of them expecting the Eagles to end that wait.
Kelsey was about to let his pregame speech rip in the locker room when senior Keon Johnson chimed in to speak. Winthrop’s all-time leading scorer is well known for his laconic personality. As such, his message was short and direct: protect your brothers at all cost.
“I just wanted to pour that into them,” said the tournament MVP and Winthrop’s all-time leading scorer.
“Keon’s a man of very, very few words,” said Kelsey. “When he talks, the room stands still and guys lean forward. And when he talks passionately like he did, I didn’t have to say another word. In my mind, we were gonna win the game right there.”
And they did. The Eagles played two solid halves, avoiding the nightmare 20 minutes — whether first or second half — that doomed them to second place each of the last three seasons. Johnson particularly played well, essentially putting the game to bed early in the second half with a volley of 3s in quick succession.
Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan went first in the postgame press conference — never a good sign on Championship Sunday — and told a story about his son missing a shot to win a championship game last week. The other team went down the court and won the game.
“And that’s life,” he said. “And you grow and learn from these experiences.”
Today, I just want to cherish every second of it.
Keon Johnson. The pressure of losing three straight Big South finals hovered around Winthrop’s 2016-17 team for almost a year, making Sunday’s win even sweeter.
No college basketball program knows that better than Winthrop, which is why its players and coach hadn’t given much thought to the NCAA Tournament yet. Xavier Cooks said he was just celebrating Sunday’s win. Lahr — his teeth chomped on a cigar and his grin 45 feet wide — clearly was too.
“It’s been raining in Rock Hill the last three championship days,” Cooks said. “It’s finally sunshine over here and it feels great.”