Winthrop University

Short-handed Winthrop Eagles prepare for Big South tournament

Winthrop’s “Gang of Eight” women’s basketball team faces tough odds as it prepares for the Big South Conference championship tournament, which gets underway Thursday with three first-round games in UNC Asheville’s Kimmel Arena.

Winthrop (4-25, 3-17), seeded No. 11, is playing in its 30th Big South tournament. The Eagles will be making their fourth first-round appearance against No. 6 seed High Point at 7 p.m. on Thursday. If the Eagles are able to snap a six-game losing streak with an upset over HPU, they will advance to the quarterfinals on Friday to face No. 3 seed Radford at 8 p.m.

Coach Kevin Cook’s team has struggled for most of the season after a series of season-ending injuries to key players turned a year of high promise into one of despair, but the Eagles have never given up as they have battled for the last two months with just eight healthy players in uniform.

The eight players who will be available to play in the tournament include three walk-ons, with one of those walk-ons being freshman JoJo Taylor, a member of the soccer team. A season that was forecast to be a strong one because of two preseason All-Conference first-team selections and one second-team pick, never materialized after 6-foot-3 senior center Schaquilla Nunn was lost for the season with a broken foot just one week before opening day. The Eagles have since lost point guard Jimecheia Banks with a broken ankle and first team All-Big South player Erica Williams and Ronata Rogers to a broken foot.

The Eagles will be playing in their 44th Big South tournament game. They own a 15-28 record (.349). The Eagles are 0-3 in first round games and have a 12-14 record in quarterfinal rounds. They are 2-10 in the semifinals and 1-1 in championship games.

Winthrop and High Point are meeting for the 46th time overall and for the fourth time in the Big South tournament. HPU owns a 25-20 lead in the series, but Winthrop has a 2-1 advantage in tournament matchups. In the two regular season games this year, High Point has won both contests. The Panthers overcame a four-point halftime deficit on Jan. 19 in Rock Hill to claim a 74-67 win, and in the rematch at High Point on Feb. 20, they shot lights out in an 80-60 win.

Winthrop’s last win came nearly a month ago against Coastal Carolina on Feb. 13 at home. Winthrop has not won an away game this year. The 17 conference losses are the most in the women’s program history, surpassing the previous most losses of 16 during the 1993-94 season.

Eagle junior guard Aliyah Kilpatrick earned All-Big South second-team honors and was voted Big South Defensive Player of the Year to lead Winthrop’s post-season awards. Freshman center Arianne Whitaker was voted to the All-Freshman team, a special feat considering she missed seven games in January due to a concussion. Sophomore guard Naima Jackson was honored on the nine-person Big South All-Academic team.

Kilpatrick and Whitaker enter Big South tournament action ranked among the national leaders in steals and blocked shots, respectively. Kilpatrick is currently fourth in the NCAA with 3.5 steals per game, while Whitaker ranks 33rd in blocked shots with 2.4 per game. Kilpatrick, who became the 19th player in Winthrop women’s history to join the 1,000 point club, has moved up to 16th place on the scoring list. She enters the tournament with 1,034 points and is nine away from taking over 15th place.

Naima Jackson has stepped up her offensive performance over the past 13 games and is averaging 10.6 points over that stretch to improve her season scoring average to 7.4. During that 13-game stretch, she has reached double figures eight times and had a career-high 21 points against regular season champion UNC Asheville.