CHARLOTTE – Once the margin appeared comfortable – well, as comfortable as games between intense regional rivals Gardner-Webb and Winthrop ever get, anyway – the chants started to ring out from behind the home team bench at Bojangles’ Coliseum Saturday.
Three-peat. Three-peat. Three-peat.
Winthrop fans are used to this. The Eagles have participated in 17 Big South title games, with the first conference championship coming to Rock Hill in 1988. So successful have the Eagles been that if the chants were to become the actual course of events, it would be the third different three-peat Winthrop has achieved in those 34 years of supremacy.
There was first the matter of handling the Runnin’ Bulldogs, however. Gardner-Webb was 9-24 against Winthrop coming in, having never beaten the Eagles in tournament play. The Eagles also knocked off the Runnin’ Bulldogs both times during the regular season. Something had to give, right?
For a while, there looked to be a chance. Gardner-Webb led for the first five-plus minutes of the game, then went toe-to-toe with Winthrop after that. A Jordan Sears bucket with 30 seconds left in the first half looked to be the final salvo to send the Runnin’ Bulldogs to the interval with a 30-29 lead.
Instead, Gardner-Webb would never again lead.
Kelton Talford drew a foul and hit two free throws to instead give Winthrop the 32-31 halftime advantage, and despite some rough moments, the three-peat dream survived another day. The Eagles capitalized on Cory Hightower’s second 20-point effort in as many nights, turning away the Runnin’ Bulldogs, 76-67, inside Bojangles’ Coliseum in Saturday’s second Big South semifinal.
“That’s a hell of a good basketball team in that other locker room. Really, really good,” Winthrop coach Mark Prosser said. “It’s hard to beat really good teams with very good players that are extraordinarily well-coached once. It’s really, really difficult to beat them a couple of times.
“They made it hard. They made us dig deep and make plays,” Prosser continued. “They’re just so tough and well-coached. We have a great deal of respect for them, and we feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to play.”
Fortune favors the bold, as the saying goes. There are few teams bolder at the moment than Prosser’s Eagles, who have won 10 in a row and seem to be playing with a renewed energy as the season has wound down. Hightower is one of those renewed energy sources, logging 20-plus points in three of his last four contests.
“It’s March, so everyone has to go to a different level,” Hightower said. “I feel like my teammates hold me accountable and my coaches hold me accountable, so I feel like that’s a big reason why I’m playing at a different level.”
The Sunday championship game marks Hightower’s first chance to compete for a title. For Hightower’s teammate, Pat Good, it represents a second chance. Good was part of the 2020 30-4 East Tennessee State club that qualified for the NCAA tournament, but the event was canceled due to COVID-19.
Winthrop also gets a second chance. The Eagles come into Sunday’s contest riding a 10-game win streak, with the last loss coming at the hands of the Lancers. Longwood took down Winthrop, 92-88, in Willett Hall in late January. While Winthrop has an immense amount of respect for the Lancers and their program, they are ready for the opportunity.
“The championship game means a lot, because after the first game at Longwood, I got COVID,” Hightower said. “I had to sit with that loss for days, just thinking about the loss and watching film and stuff like that. Just being able to get a chance to get to the championship and play them again, I know it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
“Just being able to see how they played today – down 15, fight back, fight back … We know we’re gonna get a battle tomorrow,” Good added. “If we’re a mature team and want to prepare ourselves to win, we have to go back to the hotel and do our treatment, rehab, and preparation as we’re preparing for our Super Bowl.
“Everybody’s gonna be watching us. This is the moment that, as a young kid, you prepare for,” Good added. “For them to get our best shot and for us to get their best shot, it’s gonna be a heavyweight battle. I probably won’t sleep tonight because I’ll be really jittery. When (Longwood guards DeShaun and Justin) Wade and Hill walked by to do media when we were warming up, I gave them the thumbs-up. Major respect to those guys for just being able to go out there and compete. What more could you ask for as a young kid and a student-athlete?”
Prosser is also ready – even if it might be argued that he showed uncommon humility for a team trying to hang its third straight conference banner.
“They have three all-league players and the Coach of the Year. I guess they’re the one-seed, so they’re supposed to win,” Prosser said. “We’ll see if we can show up and give them a game.”
Tip time is at noon (Eastern) Sunday on ESPN2.