With the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers announcing earlier this season that they were making the move to the Sun Belt Conference for the 2016-17 season and beyond, the Big South Tournament was on the move, as well. The Chanticleers were to host the event in Conway, SC, deemed ‘Myrtle Madness’, but it was moved due to their pending departure from the conference.
The 2016 Big South Tournament took place in Buies Creek, North Carolina, the home of the Campbell Fighting Camels. On Championship Sunday, two of the conference’s top teams were set to do battle for the right to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament.
On one side, the Winthrop Eagles came in looking for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. This year marked their third straight trip to the finals, and were hoping to come away with a win this time around.
On the flip side, the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs were looking for their first trip to the Big Dance since 2012.
It was a tale of two halves for both teams, as when one was hot, the other was cold. In the second half. the Eagles went cold from the field, allowing the Bulldogs to erase a 9-point half-time deficit and take control of the game.
After all was said and done, the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs used a strong second half surge to knock off the Winthrop Eagles to punch their ticket into the NCAA Tournament, 77-68.
Playing their second tough opponent in as many days, the Bulldogs fell behind in the first half. Winthrop took an 11-point lead late in the first half, thanks in large part to a 13-6 run to head into the locker room.
Josh Davenport threw down a dunk to push the lead to 33-22 with 1:01 left to play in the opening half. Ahmad Thomas hit a jumper in the closing seconds to give the Bulldogs a bit of momentum, and bringing them to within 9 after the opening 20 minutes.
Winthrop pushed their lead back to 11 early in the second half on a jumper from Bjorn Broman. Then, it became all about the Bulldogs, as Sam Hughes started to take control.
Hughes made three baskets within the first five minutes of the half to get the Bulldogs within striking distance of the Eagles. Just a few minutes later, Dwayne Sutton made a pair of free throws to tie the game at 44-all with 12:52 to play, and UNC-Asheville could smell the lead and the NCAA Tournament.
With 11:49 to play, Dylan Smith hit a three pointer to give the Bulldogs a 47-46 lead. From then on out, the Bulldogs wouldn’t give up the lead.
While UNC-Asheville continued to build their lead, the Eagles were still hanging around. With under four minutes left on the clock, Jimmy Gavin completed a three point play to bring Winthrop back to within 3, and they had plenty of time to complete the comeback.
Just moments later, Sutton got a tip-shot to fall off an offensive rebound, sparking an 8-0 run for the Bulldogs that ultimately sealed the deal. UNC-Asheville stretched their lead to 11, and Winthrop wasn’t able to fight back against the lead and the clock.
For the first time since 2012, the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs are headed back to the NCAA Tournament with their 77-68 victory over the Winthrop Eagles in the Big South Tournament championship.
As the case has been for most of the season, the freshmen duo of Dylan Smith and Dwayne Sutton led the way for the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs. Sutton poured in a team-high 25 points to go along with 18 rebounds, while Smith added 11 points and 5 rebounds in the win.
Kevin Vannatta added 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists, while Sam Hughes chipped in with 15 points and 4 blocks of his own.
The high-octane offense of the Winthrop Eagles sputtered in the second half against the Bulldogs, as they shot just 1-of-16 from three point range in the final 20 minutes. Jimmy Gavin scored a game-high 31 points in the loss.
Junior guard Keon Johnson was held in check all game long. Johnson shot 1-of-16 from the field on the afternoon, finishing with just 2 points and 7 rebounds.
With the win, the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs (22-11, 12-6) are off to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. Now they play the waiting game, as they wait until Selection Sunday to see where they are headed for their opening game of the Big Dance.
The loss marks the third straight defeat in the Big South Championship for the Winthrop Eagles (23-9, 13-5). Like the Bulldogs, the Eagles are now playing the waiting game, as they wait to see if they will be taking part in post-season basketball.