UNC Asheville is headed back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012 after beating Winthrop 77-68 on Sunday in the Big South Conference championship.
The Eagles fell for the third straight season in the Big South Conference final. Winthrop led 33-24 at the half, the Eagles’ seventh straight halftime lead against Asheville, but couldn’t hang on as Nick McDevitt’s Bulldogs charged back in a completely dominant second half performance to claim the program’s fifth NCAA bid.
“Tip your cap to them, they were better than us today,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “We picked a bad day to not have our best shooting night.”
Winthrop (23-9) couldn’t buy a shot, especially in the second half when Asheville (22-11) took advantage of mounting fouls against the Eagles - who made just 1-of-16 3-pointers in the second half - to gradually assemble its lead.
Fearless 6-foot-5 freshman Dwayne Sutton led the Bulldogs to the Big Dance with 25 points and 18 rebounds. Had to be the best game of his life, right?
“Most definitely. Easily,” said Sutton, who was named tournament MVP. “I’m one of the biggest guards in the Big South so I just tried to crash with a lot of aggressiveness.”
The two teams were tied at each of the first three media stoppages in the first half. But Asheville hit a cold patch of shooting - they made just 2-of-13 in one stretch - that coincided with an 11-0 run that put Winthrop at the wheel headed into the half. Josh Davenport faked his defender, then drained a fadeaway jumper, before Keon Johnson beat everyone to a missed Eagles free throw, before knocking down a jumper to make it 27-20, Winthrop.
Jimmy Gavin splashed in a 3 before Johnson fed Davenport - who had 10 points in the first 20 minutes - for a baseline drive punctuated with a slam. Ahmad Thomas’ jumper in the last minute made it 33-24 at the intermission.
Winthrop led the Bulldogs by 17 at the half of their first meeting in Asheville in January, before the Bulldogs scrapped back for a one-point win. And McDevitt’s crew saw its opening when the second-seeded Eagles opened the second frame 2-of-10 from the floor.
Game highlights from Winthrop video services:
Asheville out-scored Winthrop by 10 points in the crucial first 9 minutes of the second half, erasing the Eagles’ halftime margin. Dylan Smith’s 3 gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the game since midway through the first half (47-46), and they never looked back.
“Our guys seemed calm and poised and comfortable. We’ve been down like that a lot this year, it seems like,” said McDevitt. “They’re saying all the right things and I’m just really proud to coach these young men.”
It seemed like Winthrop’s experience in the last two championship games would be an advantage.
Not so against Asheville, a team with better chemistry after the departure of sophomore shooter Andrew Rowsey to Marquette. With Rowsey gone, the 2015-16 Bulldogs have five players averaging double figures and have fostered a locker room that helped the team deal with deficits - and relative youth - all season.
“We never hung our heads,” said Bulldog sophomore Ahmad Thomas.
Gavin led all scorers with 31 points on 12-of-25 shooting, and Davenport had one of his best games of the season before fouling out late. Davenport scored 15 points and grabbed five boards.
Sutton was just one of five Bulldogs in double figures. Sam Hughes overcame first half foul trouble to score 15 points, while Kevin Vannatta added 12 and Dylan Smith 11.
Jimmy Gavin talks about his one year at Winthrop:
UNC ASHEVILLE 77, WINTHROP 68
UNC ASHEVILLE (22-11): Vannatta 4-7 3-5 12, Thomas 4-10 0-1 8, Sutton 7-14 10-13 25, Smith 4-11 0-0 11, Hughes 5-11 5-8 15, Wnuk 0-1 0-0 0, Bryant 0-0 0-0 0, Weeks 3-9 0-2 6. Totals 27-63 18-29 77.
WINTHROP (23-9): Johnson 1-16 0-0 2, Cooks 3-11 2-2 9, Broman 1-5 2-2 4, Price 2-6 0-0 4, Gavin 12-25 3-4 31, Okeke 1-1 1-3 3, Perkins 0-1 0-0 0, Pickett 0-0 0-0 0, Davenport 5-6 5-6 15. Totals 25-71 13-17 68.
Halftime—Winthrop 33-24. 3-Point Goals—UNC Asheville 5-16 (Smith 3-8, Sutton 1-3, Vannatta 1-3, Thomas 0-2), Winthrop 5-33 (Gavin 4-13, Cooks 1-7, Perkins 0-1, Broman 0-3, Johnson 0-9). Fouled Out—Cooks, Davenport. Rebounds—UNC Asheville 45 (Sutton 18), Winthrop 49 (Cooks 12). Assists—UNC Asheville 6 (Vannatta 4), Winthrop 11 (Cooks, Johnson 3). Total Fouls—UNC Asheville 17, Winthrop 24. A—2,538.