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Big South Semifinals

March 8, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Big South Semifinals Recap

by Michael Protos

And that’s why they play the games…

No matter what logic may dictate in predicting winners in March collegiate basketball games, madness is the rule. Thou shalt not attempt to bring order to the chaos. The basketball gods will smite all who demand that the top seeds romp their way to a championship. And the Big South conference cannot escape these decrees.

Friday night’s semifinal action pitted 1st-seeded Winthrop against 5th-seeded UNC-Asheville in the early game, followed by host and 2nd-seeded Liberty against 6th-seeded Radford. Both of the favored teams fell in tightly contested games.

In six games in the Big South’s tournament, five have been decided by four points or less and three games needed an extra session to determine a winner. The Big South has not one, but two Cinderella stories to celebrate and one will earn a chance to go to the Big Dance by winning the Big South’s championship game Saturday at Lynchburg, Va. Look for the game on ESPN at 2 p.m. Based on the tournament’s results so far, you may be hard pressed to find more excitement for two hours.

No. 1 Winthrop vs. No. 5 UNC-Asheville

This match-up featured everything. A second-half comeback from a double-digit deficit. Overtime. Buzzer-beaters. Nine players scoring in double figures. And in the end, a remarkable upset by the tournament’s most amazing story.

UNC-Asheville managed to win only a single game away from home this season, and that victory came in January to lowly High Point, 64-60. The Bulldogs’ chances of winning two in a row against the Big South’s top contenders seemed slim to none. But odds don’t count for much to players on the court. Just ask UNC-Asheville’s senior guard Alex Kragel. Down by a point in overtime with less than ten seconds remaining, Kragel found a crack in the Eagles’ defense to step inside the three-point line and drain the winning shot, sending UNC-Asheville to a thrilling 81-80 victory and a chance to play for the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Winthrop led by four at the half and extended the lead to eleven before the Bulldogs charged back. The rally culminated in freshman Chad Mohn’s tying three-pointer with 18.9 seconds left in regulation. The freshman then maintained the presence to harass junior Tyrone Walker, blocking his attempt to send the Eagles to victory.

In overtime, Winthrop and UNC-Asheville shared time leading, setting up another dramatic ending. Trailing by two, Winthrop fed sophomore guard Ivan Jenkins the ball in the corner and he hit the three-pointer with 7.9 seconds remaining. UNC-Asheville did not lose its composure in the face of adversity. The Bulldogs traversed the length of the court to set up Kragel’s clutch game-winner.

Five Winthrop players scored in double figures, with Walker leading the team with sixteen points. Sophomore Josh Grant played big in tallying fourteen points and eleven rebounds. Winthrop committed eight fewer turnovers, but lost the rebounding battle by five. The Eagles fell apart from the line, shooting a dismal 42 percent and missing eleven attempts.

The Bulldogs were led by senior guard Andre Smith, who led all scores with 20 points. Fellow senior, center Ben McGonagil earned a double-double with fifteen points and twelve rebounds to assist the charge to victory. Speak on it, playa: “They’re a good team and have been our nemesis over the years. Beating them is great. We can’t think about the win too much because we have to get ready for the next game. We didn’t come here to get to the Championship game, we came to win it,” McGonagil said.

The Bulldogs are there. Next, they face…

No. 2 Liberty vs. No. 6 Radford

Neither of these teams finished the regular season strongly as Liberty went 5-5 in its final ten games while Radford went 3-7. But the post-season offers redemption. Radford defeated the Flames in the season finale and looked to repeat the performance exactly a week later. After upsetting Charleston Southern Tuesday, the Highlanders had their sites set on bringing down the Flames on their own home floor.

Mission accomplished. Radford erased a two-point deficit early in the second half. Liberty rallied to take the lead with less than three minutes remaining when senior forward Vince Okotie hit a three to give the Flames a one-point lead. But Radford reclaimed the lead for good on a three by senior guard Raymond Arrington. Both teams missed pivotal free throws down the stretch. In the end, Radford upset Liberty 55-52 to advance to the championship game against UNC-Asheville.

Arrington led all scores with seventeen points. Liberty’s junior guard Gabe Martin led the Flames with fifteen points and Okotie contributed a double-double with fourteen points and ten rebounds. The teams finished nearly equal in every major statistical category. The difference in the end came down to which team could hit the critical shots. And Radford emerged victorious by preventing Liberty from hitting a pair of shots in the waning moments of the game.

Previewing the championship game

By advancing to the championship game, Radford completes the match-up with the lowest seeds in Big South conference tournament history. 5th-seeded UNC-Asheville will actually be favored to win based on seeding alone. If this tournament has taught any lessons, though, it’s that a seeding is nothing more than a number. It does not dictate play.

UNC-Asheville and Radford split their regular season meetings, each defending their respective home courts. Now the final battle for the opportunity to earn NCAA Tournament Cinderella status will occur at the neutral Lynchburg, Va., location.


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