After months of chasing the season expectations that seemed to climb game after game, win after win, the Winthrop men’s basketball team has finally risen above it all.
The Eagles defeated Campbell 80-53 in the Big South tournament championship on Sunday afternoon in the Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill — delivering the team’s 13th conference title. The win, which aired on ESPN, also marks Winthrop’s 12th NCAA Tournament bid and its second in as many years.
Winthrop qualified for last year’s NCAA Tournament but missed out when the emerging COVID pandemic canceled all sports. There will be minimal drama in the Eagles’ tournament destination this year: All the NCAA games will take place in or around Indianapolis in a bubble environment.
Sunday was far from Winthrop’s hallmark performance of the year — or for the tournament — but it was enough: The emergence of redshirt sophomore DJ Burns, who scored 14 first-half points, combined with a Campbell dry spell that witnessed over six minutes of game time without a made field goal, gave Winthrop a 32-26 advantage heading into halftime.
In the second half, while Campbell continued its offensive struggles, Winthrop ascended to the moment. Any real Big South title hopes for Campbell seemed to cease before the second-to-last media timeout, when Burns spun past his defender in the post, slammed a left-handed dunk and roared to the crowd that was already giving him a standing ovation. That and a Micheal Anumba three and, later, back-to-back threes from senior guard Kyle Zunic, pushed the game’s margin to 19 points and put the Camels away for good.
The win truly seemed to sink in when Vaudrin was sent to the free throw line with 1:40 remaining. He nailed both, pushing the game’s margin to 30 points. Zunic exited the game and gave his coach, Pat Kelsey, a big hug. Eagle reserves filed into the game with over a minute left, and that’s when celebration began in Rock Hill.
The Winthrop players, unable to be joined on court by the fans in attendance, danced with the trophy and cut down the net and took pictures while wearing new Big South champion caps and shirts.
Winthrop is the third team in the country to earn itself a trip to the 2021 NCAA Tournament, joining Liberty of the Atlantic Sun and Morehead State of the Ohio Valley Conference.