DAYTON, Ohio — Winthrop came into the NCAA Tournament as the poorest shooting team among the 65 entrants. They exited the tournament solidifying that label on Tuesday night. The Eagles shot 29 percent from the field and lost, 61-44, to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the NCAA Tournament’s annual play-in game.
Winthrop finished the season with a 19-14 record, falling a win shy of its eighth 20-win season. The Eagles’ participation in the game made them the first school to be in the opening round twice. Now they are the only team to lose it two times.
“I am proud of this team and what they’ve accomplished this year,” Winthrop coach Randy Peele said. “We picked a bad time to play a bad game.”
Arkansas-Pine Bluff (18-15) made its first-ever NCAA appearance a good one. The Golden Lions will add another chapter to a storybook season on Friday when they play Duke in Jacksonville, Fla., in the first round of the tournament.
This was a team that lost its first 11 games of the 2009-2010 season; a team that played its first 14 games on the road taking on all comers; a team that didn’t play on their home floor until mid-January.
UAPB got stronger with that murderous schedule.
Nevermind that the Southwest Athletic Conference, known as the SWAC, hadn’t won a tournament game since 1993. Forget that UAPB had no postseason success to fall back on. The Golden Lions came ready to play.
“We think our schedule really prepared us for the tournament,” Arkansas-Pine Bluff coach George Ivory said. “We knew Winthrop was a very good team.”
Both teams expected a defensive battle. Winthrop was one of the best defensive teams in the Big South Conference again this season. UAPB went through its conference tournament yielding 66, 44 and 38 points, respectively.
“I think you saw the effect of having not played in more than a week. In the second half we got frustrated. I haven’t seen that in a while,” Peele said.
Winthrop led 23-17 with two minutes left in the first half but UAPB closed the half on a 7-0 run. The Golden Lions extended the lead with a 9-4 run to open the second half and never trailed again.
Mantoris Robinson closed out his Winthrop career with 10 points and eight rebounds. His biggest offensive play came with 12:58 left when he drove to the basket to score and was fouled. His free throw was good to cut the Golden Lions’ lead to 38-34.
UAPB’s Terrell Kennedy took a lob pass deep in the lane and scored. Matt Morgan followed with a spin move to cut the lead back to 4.
That was as close as the Eagles could get.
Winthrop mustered just three field goals and connected on 1-of-4 free throws in the final 11 minutes of the game as the season slipped from the Eagles’ grasp.
UAPB was bailed out of a shot clock violation when big man Terrell Kennedy buried a 3 from the wing to give his team a 43-36 lead. Savalance Townsend followed with a slash to the bucket and the Golden Lions led by nine.
“Defensively, we didn’t impose our will. Our will on defense didn’t show tonight,” Robinson said. The fifth-year senior was the heart and soul of the Eagles this year as well as their defensive leader.
“It’s never been about me. It’s always been about team. I love this team and I’m happy I was an Eagle for five years,” he added.
The defense took a hit when Robinson got into foul trouble. It suffered another blow when Charles Corbin, who led the team with 13 points, was whistled for his fourth personal with 7:14 left in the game. Both players fouled out late in the contest.
Corbin led three Winthrop players in double figures. Morgan, a sophomore, had 11 points and five boards.
Allen Smith led UAPB with 14 points. He was 4-for-5 on 3-pointers.
Smith is a Pine Bluff kid who graduated from Pine Bluff High. He is two years removed from a knee injury that cost him all of the 2008-09 season. He started just seven games and averaged less than five points this season.
He came on strong in the SWAC tournament to garner the MVP Award. If an MVP was given for this game; he’d own it.
Smith defended Winthrop’s Reggie Middleton, a sophomore point guard that led the Eagles in scoring this season. It was Middleton that dumped 26 points on Liberty in the first round of the Big South tournament and followed it up with a 16-point effort in the win over Radford.
Tuesday night Middleton was 2-for-12 from the floor and scored five points. The Eagles’ backcourt combined to make just 3-of-26 shots.
Winthrop was 2-for-21 from 3-point range. It was a problem all year that was masked by great defense. Tuesday night the defense wasn’t there either.
UAPB finished the game shooting 39 percent. But in the second half the Golden Lions made 10-of-19 including 4-of-8 from 3-point land to pull away.
“We have overcome a lot this season. When we were 5-9 the air around this team was negative. It was one of what we couldn’t do, instead of what we could do,” Peele said.
The team couldn’t shoot.
“I think when I look back on this at some point, I’ll feel real good about this season,” he said. “We just weren’t able to overcome that tonight.”
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