CONWAY, S.C. (AP) Winthrop coach Kevin Cook crossed the court past his celebrating players and handed his mother a Big South Conference championship hat and T-shirt.
”I’m going to hold on to the ball,” Cook said.
After all, there’s no bigger memento in Winthrop women’s basketball history.
Dequesha McClanahan had 24 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Eagles to their first Big South tournament title and NCAA berth after an 87-74 victory over High Point on Sunday. The win completed a weekend where they knocked off league powerhouse Liberty in the semifinals and the regular-season champions in the finals.
”And we’re not finished yet,” said McClanahan, the league’s player of the year and tournament MVP.
McClanahan led Winthrop on a 17-7 run midway through the second period to gain control. Her teammates helped out down the stretch, extending the Eagles double-digit lead after McClanahan went to the bench for more than five minutes after her fourth foul.
”We just fed off one another and pulled together,” McClanahan said. ”We created separation which is what we needed to do win this game.”
Stacia Robertson had 18 points and 10 rebounds for High Point (22-10), which fell to 0-4 in tournament finals.
Robertson said the Panthers felt they had a chance when McClanahan went to the bench with 8:47 remaining and down 71-62. Instead, the Eagles kept pace with High Point and had increased their lead to 11 by the time their point guard returned with 3:30 left.
”We wanted to go on a run right there,” Robertson said. ”I remember a couple of turnovers there that really hurt us and we couldn’t get it done.”
McClanahan dribbled out the final seconds with a wide grin, pointed to the sky and screamed with joy before getting mobbed by teammates.
Erica Williams added 18 points and eight rebounds for the Eagles while McClanahan was voted the event’s MVP.
Winthrop has long made its Big South basketball bones on the men’s side of things, the Eagles arena featuring nine league championship banners won since 1999. Now, Winthrop’s women’s have one to call their own.
”Yeah, it’s like, `Finally,”’ she said. ”I’m ready to see it hanging up in the coliseum.”
Earlier Sunday, Winthrop fell to Coastal Carolina 76-61 in the men’s conference tournament finals.
Winthrop will wait until March 17 to find out its NCAA matchup. McClanahan, a three-time Big South player of the year, and the Eagles are ready for anything. Cook hopes to enjoy this success before worrying about what’s next.
”I’m happy that Dequesha’s dream of getting a ring” happened, he said. ”She’ll get a pretty nice ring.”
Not that this was easy.
High Point tied the game a final time at 52-all on Ashante Richard’s inside bucket. Samiya Wright put Winthrop up for good with a basket before McClanahan scored the next six points. She had another bucket and a foul shot and Wright ended the charge with a jumper to put the Eagles up 69-59.
The biggest surprise coming in may have been that Liberty wasn’t in it. But the Flames, who were seeded second and won 15 of the past 17 Big South tournament crowns, were ousted Saturday night by Winthrop, which overcame 1-of-13 shooting at the start to win 69-59 and reach their first conference final in 18 years.
High Point, the tournament’s top seed, was likely a bit relieved it was the Eagles and not Liberty in the finals, since its first three appearances in the Big South tournament finals all ended with losses to the Flames.
Winthrop was cold again in this first half and hit only one of its first nine three-point tries to trail High Point 38-31 with less than two minutes left in the opening half.
But the Eagles found their touch after that behind Big South player of the year McClanahan for a 10-1 run to close the half.
McClanahan got it going with a bucket before Williams, Pamela Decheva and McClanahan each made two foul shots to tie things at 39-all. Samiya Wright ended the period with a 3-pointer to put Winthrop ahead 42-39.
High Point guard Keys, the Big South’s freshman of the year, was held to six points in the opening half after coming in averaging more than 18 points a game. She finished with 10 points.
But Panthers coach DeUnna Hendrix said her team’s struggles on defense – Winthrop had nine steals and 25 points off turnovers – cost them.
”It comes down to defending and rebounding,” she said. ”We only got 11 turnovers (on Winthrop)? That’s not High Point basketball.”