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Big South Semifinals: Winthrop Wins Wild Game over UNC Asheville 80-79

Winthrop won another wild match up, after a buzzer beater yesterday, to take down UNC Asheville 80-79 in the Big South Semifinals. The Eagles will be heading to the Big South Championship for a record twelfth time.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

When you think of traditional powers in the Big South two teams come to mind...Winthrop and UNC Asheville. Gregg Marshall lead his Eagles to seven Big South titles and Randy Peele, who took over for Marshall, won two of his own in 2008 and 2010. At Asheville, Eddie Biedenbach grabbed titles for the Bulldogs three times including back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.

Gone are Marshall, Peele, and Biedenbach and now Pat Kelsey and Nick McDevitt roam the sidelines for Winthrop and Asheville. The two teams met in the Big South semifinals today in what was a rubber match from the previous two results this season. Both teams won on their home court this year, Asheville 81-66 in January and Winthrop 107-100 just over a week ago.

The Eagles were coming in off an emotional high after taking down the North's number one seed courtesy of a buzzer beating three from Andre Smith. Today's game was the Eagles' third in four days in the Big South Tournament. Meanwhile, Asheville got a dominant performance from Andrew Rowsey, D.J. Cunningham, and Jaron Lane to cruise past Radford after sitting out Wednesday with a first round bye.

While the first half was tightly contested, Winthrop faced the most adversity with Andre Smith picking up his second foul with just over 15 minutes left and then big man Larry Brown went down with a knee injury with nine minutes remaining in the half.  While Brown didn't seem like a huge loss in the box score, he was another big body in Kelsey's rotation to throw at Asheville's big man D.J. Cunningham.

Winthrop rallied around their first half adversity and at one point scored on 13 of 15 possessions down the court. The Eagles would go into halftime up 48-42 with Keon Moore leading the way with 14 points and a 4-for-4 performance from beyond the arc.  As a team the Eagles shot 66.7% from the floor in the half.

Andrew Rowsey willed Asheville to a 6-0 lead to start the second half and tied the game. To compound the Eagles problems Andre Smith picked up his third foul just two minutes into the half. The only good news that Pat Kelsey had when he was forced to burn an early timeout is that Larry Brown returned to the game.

The game remained close until the 5:58 mark when D.J. Cunningham picked up a technical foul after a shooting foul under the basket. The sequence gave Winthrop a 72-64 lead and then tempers flared even more in the next possession when the referees stopped a Asheville fastbreak because the shot clock did not start.

The unfortunate sequence for Asheville did not phase the Bulldogs as they went on a 9-2 run to force a Winthrop timeout. Rowsey capped the run with back-to-back three pointers to cut the Eagles lead to 74-73.

Both teams exchange the lead down the stretch and Keon Johnson had a chance to make the contest a two shot game with 1:03 left but missed a crucial free throw. Asheville then got within one point and Johnson once again drove the lane but was swatted away by Cunningham. The sequence allowed McDevitt to take a timeout with the shot clock off and allow the Bulldogs to take the last shot.

After the timeout Andrew Rowsey missed a runner and then Jaron Lane missed a point blank lay-in that would have won the game. Instead Winthrop escaped with an 80-79 win and their twelfth ticket to the Big South Championship.

Keon Moore lead the Eagles with 20 points, while Joab Jerome and Keon Johnson both added 16 points each. Asheville had three players finish the game with over 20 points in Andrew Rowsey (23), Jaron Lane (22), and D.J. Cunningham (21). Cunningham also finished with 11 rebounds and 4 blocks.

Winthrop will take on either VMI or Coastal Carolina in the Big South Championship at noon on Sunday. The Eagles were 3-0 against those teams this year.