#4 UNC Asheville Bulldogs vs. #2 Winthrop Eagles
2:30 PM, ESPN2, Buies Creek, NC
Since the turn of the century, two teams have dominated the headlines when it comes to conference championships, the Winthrop Eagles, and the UNC Asheville Bulldogs. After defeating Gardner-Webb 82-69 Pat Kelsey's Eagles will make their third straight trip to the Big South Championship game and are looking for their eleventh tournament title in league history.
Asheville comes into Sunday's matchup making their first championship appearance under Nick McDevitt and seeking to win their fifth Big South tournament title in school history. The Bulldogs carved their path after dismantling #5 Liberty on Friday and then knocking off an injury plagued #1 High Point in the semifinals.
If the two prior games this year hold any prediction for Sunday's final then you're going to want to be near a TV at 2:30. These two teams split the season series with each team winning on their home floor by a single point.
Asheville's Ahmad Thomas was the hero in the Bulldogs early January 85-84 victory as he hit a layup to win the game and complete a 23 point second half comeback. UNCA only played a seven-man rotation in that game and Kevin Vannatta lead the way with 20 points, eight rebounds, and six assists.
The series turned to Rock Hill in late February where Jimmy Gavin was the hero, pick-pocketing Asheville's Dwayne Sutton in the waning seconds to pull off an 81-80 win. Gavin has combined for 43 points in the two affairs while Keon Johnson isn't far behind him with 37 of his own.
Asheville Wins If...
Asheville has this sort of amorphous roster as they don't really have what you would label a true point guard or a true big. This seems to be a secret formula McDevitt has concocted that has been working well all year long; he's recruited gritty basketball players who like to play together. Winthrop obviously likes to bomb from the outside with the likes of Gavin, Johnson, and Bjorn Broman, which is good for UNCA as they really take pride in their perimeter defense. Asheville has limited teams to shooting just 20% from beyond the arc this tournament.
The Bulldogs have more or less kept Winthrop's bigs in check this season as Duby Okeke, Xavier Cooks, and Zach Price has combined to average just over 25 points and 13 rebounds in the two previous matchups. The undersized UNCA squad will need to continue to battle on the boards to pull off a win Sunday afternoon.
Finally, Asheville has to play with the same energy that has served them well thus far this tournament. That's easier said than done as the Bulldogs have been riding a seven-man rotation down the stretch this season. This is an instance where a more youthful squad needs to come through against a team that has been in this situation already.
Winthrop Wins If...
Pat Kelsey's squad just needs to keep doing what they're doing, and that's playing with a chip on their shoulder. As we've said, this is the third straight year Winthrop is in the championship game, but it's the first time it's not a road game against a rival.
It doesn't matter who the heroes are for Winthrop on Sunday, but they just need to match Asheville's youthful energy, which shouldn't be hard with guys like Jimmy Gavin in your lineup.
Winthrop is hungry. They have two stinging championship defeats driving them, and they have three seniors hungry to go to the NCAA Tournament after three very different journeys.
It's going to be a game of adjustments for Kelsey, if Winthrop can't get things going on the outside or finds Asheville's 1-3-1 looks troubling then they need to be immediately able to adjust and rely on Cooks, Price, and Okeke inside.
Winthrop 76, Asheville 68
It just seems like it's Winthrop's time and the Eagles should have every motivating factor to win this game. The good news for Asheville fans is that this could be the start of yet another solid run for the Bulldogs with such a young roster.
Either way, expect a good one on Sunday!