ROCK HILL, S.C. (Rock Hill Herald) - After months of chasing the season expectations that seemed to climb game after game, win after win, the Winthrop men’s basketball team has finally risen above it all.
The Eagles defeated Campbell 80-53 in the Big South tournament championship on Sunday afternoon in the Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill — delivering the team’s 13th conference title. The win, which aired on ESPN, also marks Winthrop’s 12th NCAA Tournament bid and its second in as many years.
Winthrop qualified for last year’s NCAA Tournament but missed out when the emerging COVID pandemic canceled all sports. There will be minimal drama in the Eagles’ tournament destination this year: All the NCAA games will take place in or around Indianapolis in a bubble environment.
Sunday was far from Winthrop’s hallmark performance of the year — or for the tournament — but it was enough: The emergence of redshirt sophomore DJ Burns, who scored 14 first-half points, combined with a Campbell dry spell that witnessed over six minutes of game time without a made field goal, gave Winthrop a 32-26 advantage heading into halftime.
In the second half, while Campbell continued its offensive struggles, Winthrop ascended to the moment. Any real Big South title hopes for Campbell seemed to cease before the second-to-last media timeout, when Burns spun past his defender in the post, slammed a left-handed dunk and roared to the crowd that was already giving him a standing ovation. That and a Micheal Anumba three and, later, back-to-back threes from senior guard Kyle Zunic, pushed the game’s margin to 19 points and put the Camels away for good.
The win truly seemed to sink in when Vaudrin was sent to the free throw line with 1:40 remaining. He nailed both, pushing the game’s margin to 30 points. Zunic exited the game and gave his coach, Pat Kelsey, a big hug. Eagle reserves filed into the game with over a minute left, and that’s when celebration began in Rock Hill.
The Winthrop players, unable to be joined on court by the fans in attendance, danced with the trophy and cut down the net and took pictures while wearing new Big South champion caps and shirts.
Winthrop is the third team in the country to earn itself a trip to the 2021 NCAA Tournament, joining Liberty of the Atlantic Sun and Morehead State of the Ohio Valley Conference.
WINTHROP’S REMARKABLE 2020 RUN
From the outside, Winthrop’s run up until Sunday likely looked easier than it was. The Eagles, anointed by league media and coaches as the preseason favorite to win the conference, jumped out to the best start in program history (6-0) and then the best start in Big South history (9-0) — bludgeoning such mid-major powers as Furman and UNC Greensboro along the way.
They continued their run into late January, peaking at 21 straight wins stemming from the end of last season, which slowly but surely caught the nation’s attention: They earned an AP Top 25 vote this season, something that’s only happened twice in 15 years and three times ever.
Winthrop’s run came to a dramatic end on Jan. 29, when the team lost to UNC Asheville by two despite having a late chanceto force overtime.
That loss, however frustrating, perhaps gave Winthrop a chance to recharge. The team from Rock Hill didn’t play again for another 13 days — clinching the Big South regular season crown while on a scheduled break in play — and it only played one more two-game regular-season series after it.
Then came the Big South tournament, which saw as many 20-plus-point wins (3) as Winthrop had accumulated all regular season. Winthrop, with its newly voted Big South Player of the Year Chandler Vaudrin (who notched a triple-double in the quarterfinals) and Coach of the Year Kelsey, was playing its “best basketball at the right time,” per Kelsey after Thursday’s semifinal win.
And the team proved too mighty again on Sunday in front of an ESPN audience.
Winthrop was led by Burns, who finished with 22 points, and Zunic, who added 13. Vaudrin added eight points and 10 rebounds.
Campbell was led by Jordan Whitfield, who finished with 18 points, and Ricky Clemons, who finished with 10 and defended Vaudrin all game, keeping the normally unguardable 6-foot-7 point guard at bay.
WHEN IS THE NCAA SELECTION SUNDAY SHOW?
Winthrop will learn its NCAA tournament opponent when the 2021 bracket is revealed at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 14 on CBS.
WINTHROP NCAA TOURNAMENT HISTORY
Listed by year, seed, tournament result
- 1999: No. 16 seed, lost to Auburn in NCAA first round
- 2000: No. 14 seed, lost to Oklahoma in first round
- 2001: No. 16 seed, lost to Northwestern State in play-in game
- 2002: No. 16 seed, lost to Duke in first round
- 2005: No. 14 seed, lost to Gonzaga in first round
- 2006: No. 15 seed, lost to Tennessee in first round
- 2007: No. 11 seed, defeated Notre Dame in first round, then lost to Oregon
- 2008: No. 13 seed, lost to Washington State in first round
- 2010: No. 16 seed, lost to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in play-in game
- 2017: No. 13 seed, lost to Butler in first round
Note: The team won the Big South last year with a 24-10 record, but didn’t appear in the 2020 NCAA tournament after it was canceled.