Big South Conference Tournament Semifinal Recap
by Jerry Hinnen
After chaos reigning in the Big South tournament brackets the past several seasons, the 2006 conference championship will be decided by the top two seeds: one the league’s most on-paper talented team and regular season champion, the other its personal nemesis and the conference’s hottest squad. The championship game, airing on ESPN2 at noon Eastern Saturday, should be the proverbial “doozy,” and will be an excellent chance for the up-and-coming league to show why it has risen all to No. 19 in this season’s conference RPI ratings, far surpassing rival leagues the SoCon (No. 23) and Atlantic Sun (No. 28).
No. 1 Winthrop 77, No. 5 High Point 65
The defending Big South champions and 2006 regular season titlists will play for an NCAA berth on their own floor Saturday after a late run turned away a valiant effort from fifth-seeded High Point, 77-65.
After a three-point play by Mike Jefferson brought the visiting Panthers within two at 57-55 with 4:58 to play, Winthrop’s All-Big South guard Torrell Martin connected for back-to-back treys that pushed the lead back to eight less than 60 seconds later. High Point would come no closer than seven the rest of the way.
Martin scored 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the floor. He got a big hand from point guard Chris Gaynor, who took only one shot in last Saturday’s regular season-title clinching win over Birmingham-Southern, but Thursday connected on 5-of-7 three-pointers to tie his career-high with 17 points. (Gaynor also dished out a team-high five assists while turning the ball over twice.) Senior forwards James Shuler and Craig Bradshaw each finished in double figures with 11 and 16 points, respectively, and sophomore forward Taj McCullough continued his strong play off the bench with 9 points.
Despite the loss, there was plenty for High Point fans to be encouraged about the team’s prospects for the 2006-07 season. The Panthers – whose roster is Division I’s second-youngest, featuring only two seniors and one junior – were led by sophomore guard Mike Jefferson’s 25-point explosion on 46 percent (6-of-13) three-point shooting. Jefferson also collected five assists (though with five turnovers) and All-Big South forward Arizona Reid, a sophomore, finished with 17 points.
The Winthrop big men did an excellent job, however, keeping the aggressive Reid off the boards. “A.Z” finished with only three rebounds in 39 minutes, well off his season average of 8.9 a game and nine fewer than he grabbed in the Panthers’ quarterfinal win over Radford. Bradshaw, Shuler, and Martin each shared game-high honors with eight boards apiece as the Eagles owned a 45-30 edge on the glass.
The only ill omen for Winthrop heading into Saturday’s title tilt? The Eagles committed an ugly 21 turnovers in the semifinal, eight of them by Bradshaw alone.
No. 2 Coastal Carolina 73, No.6 Charleston Southern 67
A late Charleston Southern surge fell short as the second-seeded Chanticleers advanced to face Winthrop and potentially complete a devastating season sweep of the conference favorites.
Over the past two seasons, Winthrop has posted an overwhelming 27-1 record against Big South opponents – all opponents, that is, except Coastal, who handed the Eagles their only 2005 Big South loss and took both meetings this season, including a 64-57 win in Rock Hill Jan. 24 that remains Winthrop’s only home Big South loss either year.
At halftime of their semifinal against CSU, the Chants looked like they would cruise into their showdown with the Eagles. They led 40-22 with conference Player of the Year Jack Leasure having scored 13 points and freshman dynamo Joseph Harris having already grabbed 10 rebounds.
But Charleston Southern fought back, eventually coming within three, 67-64, on a Trent Drafts three-pointer with 44 seconds to play. But Coastal senior guard Pele Paelay responded with a three of his own to push the lead back to six, before CSU’s Chris Moore hit yet another trey to make it a one-possession game again with 16 seconds remaining. With no choice but to foul, CSU sent Paelay to the line where he sank both shots to ice the win.
CCU junior forward Moses Sonko continued his red-hot play down the stretch by pouring in a game-high 21 points to go with 8 rebounds. Leasure scored an even 20, but by his standards had an off-night shooting the ball, going only 3-of-12 from deep. Paelay added 17 while Harris finished with a huge 16 rebounds, powering the Chants to a 40-27 edge on the glass.
A game after shooting an eye-popping 9-of-11 from outside in the first half against Birmingham-Southern, the Buccaneers went 0-9 in the first half against Coastal and finished only 7-of-26. Moore and Drafts (the latter in his final game as a Buc) shared team-high honors with 16 points each.
As a team that relies on accurate three-point shooting to open things up for its energetic but undersized forwards – only Birmingham-Southern shot for a higher percentage in Big South play from behind the arc – CCU will need to do better than the 5-of-20 from outside it posted against CSU. Winthrop won’t make it easy for them. The Eagles were the conference’s best team at defending the three.