Defense-minded Winthrop a proven Dancer

WASHINGTON STATE IS an 8 1/2–point favorite over Winthrop in the early line on Thursday's NCAA Tournament first-round match up. The Cougars, however, have no room for complacency. Winthrop is making its fourth straight tourney appearance and eighth trip in 10 years. Last season they beat favored Notre Dame in Spokane. And two years ago they nearly upset Tennessee in a heartbreaking two-point loss.

The Cougars, a No. 4 seed, and Eagles, a No. 13 seed, have never met before. Tip off Thursday at Denver's Pepsi Center is scheduled for 4:20 pm Pacific Time. CBS will televise the action.

The winner plays either Notre Dame or George Mason on Saturday. And the winner of that is likely to face No. 1 North Carolina.

Winthrop earned an automatic bid to the Big Dance by capturing the Big South Conference Tournament title with a 66-48 win over regular season co-champion North Carolina-Asheville. They are 22-11 this season, with two of those wins coming against ACC teams, Georgia Tech and Big Dance-bound-Miami.

Baylor, which also is in the tournament, is the only common opponent the Eagles and Cougars shared this season. WSU won in Waco, 67-64, and Winthrop lost on a neutral court, 62-54.

The Cougars and Eagles are two of the stingiest defensive teams in the nation. Coming to this past weekend's games, WSU was ranked No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 56.5 points per game, while Winthrop was No. 9 at 58.2 per game.

The Eagles are led by three seniors -- 6-3 senior guard Michael Jenkins (14.3 points per game); 6-7 forward Taj McCullough (11.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per outing) and point guard Chris Gaynor (9.7 points and 4.3 assists per game).

Winthrop's roster is largely home grown, with seven players from North or South Carolina, two from Georgia, one each from Florida and Tennessee, and two from outside the region (Canada and Germany).

Winthrop has dedicated this season to the memory of DeAndre Adams, an Eagles point guard who was killed in a car accident in May.

WINTHROP IS LOCATED in Rock Hill, S.C., just a stone's throw from Charlotte, N.C. It's a public school with an enrollment of more than 6,000, making it about one-third the size of WSU.

The school is known for producing teachers and prominent members of the state legislature, but it's most famous former student – who dropped out as a sophomore in 1978 – is actress and L'oreal pitch-woman Andie McDowell.

NOTABLE:

• This will mark the Cougars' sixth trip to the NCAA Tournament. In addition to last year, the program's four previous trips occurred in 1941, 1980, 1983 and 1994.

• With Winthrop in the fold, three of the Cougars' last four March Madness opponents have had the nickname Eagles. The others were Oral Roberts (the Golden Eagles, to be precise) last year and Boston College in 1994.

• Eagles coach Randy Peele is in his first year at the helm of Winthrop, but he is no stranger to the post-season. He was a Winthrop assistant to former coach Gregg Marshall for four years and before that, as head coach, he led UNC-Greensboro to the Big Dance.


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