Winthrop's quest for Big South three-peat falls just short

(Photo: Big South Conference)

CHARLOTTE – It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

College basketball is a mendacious beast. A nasty liar. We believe things about our teams to be proven fact. Far too often, those facts end up betraying us.

One of those facts is that Winthrop hangs banners from the rafters. The Eagles have 13 such conference tournament champion banners as part of the Winthrop Coliseum decorations, and 2021-22 seemed to be the year for another. Such a banner would have been the third different three-peat in program history.

Instead, Winthrop forward Cory Hightower ascended the steps to the media podium after Sunday’s game with tears in his eyes. Coach Mark Prosser’s eyes didn’t stay dry for long.

Winthrop guard Patrick Good tweeted five hours after the final horn, “To the NCAA tourney: I was supposed to meet you, but our paths never crossed.”

Some see 2021-22 as just being Longwood’s year, just as 2020-21 was Winthrop’s year. While this is probably at least somewhat true -- especially given the Lancers’ 15-1 Big South slate and their magical story – the Eagles did finish 14-2 themselves. Winthrop won the league by five games last season, then won its tournament games by 29, 21 – over the Lancers – and 27. This year’s Eagles even won the same number of games as the prior year’s edition, though the pandemic clearly played tricks with those numbers.

Prosser spoke first in the media scrum following his club’s 79-58 championship loss, and he took the time to reflect on a year filled with change in a program that has grown accustomed to stability under Prosser’s friend and former boss, Pat Kelsey.

“It’s always different when there’s a coaching change and things like that,” Prosser said. “Our kids never batted an eye. They’re just wonderful people. They bought in. They’re such very good players.

“It’s my job to make sure that they’re ready to go. It’s a thousand percent on me that we weren’t better today. They gave it everything they had. I’m very proud to be sitting here with (Hightower and forward DJ Burns) and certainly part of a locker room of really upset young men right now … Make no mistake. In this locker room, we don’t celebrate runners-up. I’ll make sure that I’ll get better, we’ll get better as a coaching staff, and we’ll prepare our kids better.”

Prosser inherited a veteran team, by virtue of both the holdovers from Kelsey’s roster and the transfers he brought in from his prior job at Western Carolina and beyond. There was Burns, the Player of the Year in both the preseason and end-of-season selection process. Hightower followed Prosser from Western Carolina, having both experience in the Big South at Presbyterian and success in the system as a Catamount. Good had beaten Prosser’s teams as a player at ETSU. Drew Buggs holds Hawaii’s career assist record, dishing out 437 dimes in his time there before transferring to Missouri.

The pieces were there. The Eagles received 23 of the 26 preseason first-place votes – Asheville received the other three – in voting from coaches and media. It wasn’t an easy start, to be sure. Winthrop found itself at a crossroads in late December, surrendering 47 first-half points to Mississippi State in an eventual 21-point loss. Winthrop sat at 6-6 after the game, knowing that things needed to be fixed. The 10 days between that loss and their next game proved pivotal.

“After our loss to Mississippi State, we said we were gonna be a better team and come out and focus on cleaning up all the things we were missing up,” Burns said.

Forward Micheal Anumba commented on the difference in the team after the Eagles’ quarterfinal victory over High Point. The Panthers were one of just two teams to knock off Winthrop in league play.

“I feel like the main difference was our team chemistry was much better than back then,” Anumba said. “We’re playing much better together. We love each other. I feel like back then, we didn’t play for each other. Today, we came out and were all on the same page and were all ready to go. We all had one goal in mind, and it showed.”

Two days later, another team was cutting down the nets.

Longwood forced 11 first-half turnovers by the Eagles. 22 points came from those turnovers – the Lancers scored 32 off miscues for the game – and left Winthrop in a deficit that proved insurmountable.

Prosser noted that Longwood was the aggressor for much of the game. That aggressor role has long been a Winthrop staple. It is the reason so many banners hang in Winthrop’s home arena.

The temptation of many Winthrop fans will likely be to judge Prosser and this Winthrop team against the prior championship group and against Kelsey’s three championship teams in Rock Hill. When doing so, it is also important to keep in mind that Kelsey went 14-17 (6-10 Big South) in his first year. His teams also lost three Big South title games in a row before finally breaking through.

Such is the cruel world of high expectations in a one-bid league. Had the Eagles played in many other leagues and won 23 games – 16 in conference, counting the tournament – they would consider the season a rousing success and probably preparing to play in one of the two upper-tier postseason tournaments.

Instead, it all came down to 40 minutes on a neutral floor in Charlotte. Good and Buggs walked off the floor for the last time as Eagles. Anumba, too, will seemingly depart. Many outstanding pieces remain, including rising star forward Kelton Talford. Hightower has another year, to name a few. One thing is for sure, however. The team that helped Prosser amass more victories than any first-year coach in Big South history will be fundamentally different next year. Though the players may be different, the expectations remain clear.

“I feel poorly that we didn’t deliver the ultimate goal, which is gonna be our ultimate goal every year,” Prosser said. “We’ll work very, very hard to make sure this feeling that we have right now isn’t replicated too many times.”

When asked by Alex Zietlow of the Rock Hill Herald about whether he felt any sense of satisfaction from a successful first year, Prosser doubled down.

“Nope,” Prosser immediately replied. “Often times, we get teams’ best shot. That’s part of being in this program. It’s part of the challenge you accept by coming to Winthrop. I think we almost relish that. I think we enjoy that challenge.

“At the end of the day, when you have a goal set and you don’t attain that goal, it’s difficult. We don’t take too kindly to losing around here, and we won’t get used to it.”