My basketball memories were for the most part fairly good at High Point. In my four years as a student, the Panthers were 47-8 at the Millis Center. We always made it to the Big South semifinals when I was a student. Most of everything went well for High Point basketball fans then, under the play of AZ Reid. Well, everything until...
We got to Winthrop. Of course, Gregg Marshall's Eagles also beat us at the Millis Center as well. But the hope of each season would always crash at the Winthrop Coliseum. In two of my years at HPU, the loss that ended everything came at this building. Each experience was different, but a trip to Winthrop was always unwelcoming, and often a trip of an ending experience. Kyle once wrote about his experiences at Drexel, and how everything ended with a loss to Delaware. For High Point fans, Winthrop is our Delaware.
The first time I went to Winthrop was on a bus trip for the 2006 Big South semifinals. I was excited about this trip, as I could see High Point play on a bigger stage at the home of the Big South powerhouse Eagles. Our seats were behind our bench, close to the Winthrop students, and that was where the trouble started. The Winthrop fans were very riled up for the game, being a conference tournament game and coming off a streak of success. And now they had an opposing section to mouth off at, something they never had much before. As the game progressed, the WU students heckled our players which then carried over into smac directed at our students. The officiating seemed to favor the Eagles, and the more the crowd got into it the worse the calls got. It was now how I saw that the calls we complained about at home were very minor compared to what teams face on the road. As I mentioned before, experts who have studied home-court advantage have associated with officiating calls influenced by the majority of the crowd. The Panthers were still fighting hard, but with about five minutes left, the Eagles pulled away as I heard a huge roar from the crowd. The roar was unlike any I heard, one that rose up spontaneously and filled an arena far bigger than what we were used to at the Millis Center. It was then I learned what life was like on the road. As the tension between the Winthrop fans and our fans got worse, the campus police got involved and finally warned one of our fans. And the campus police were intently watching our section, while not bothering with any of their students who started with the verbal jabs. After reading Winthrop fans equate the actions of one of our players' families with all of our fans on Big South message boards from a few years back, I could not believe how they acted in return towards us. We lost the game 77-65, and this was not a good first memory.
The next time I would visit the Winthrop Coliseum was the following Big South tournament in 2007. I decided not to bother with the bus trip for the regular season game, considering the bad memories the year before and knowing that it would be the conference tournament that would count the most. So I went on the bus come time for the conference tournament, in 2007 against VMI. Surely the memories would be better this time, right? We weren't even playing Winthrop, although that was a possibility for the next game if we won.
But it would be another bad memory. The HPU staff planning the trip had the bus leaving High Point at 3:30 for a 6 p.m. game. This would work, if we were going in a faster car with no delays. But with rain showers all day and rush hour traffic in downtown Charlotte, we did not arrive in Rock Hill until 6:15. I never like arriving late, and to make matters worse, our team without our fans had fallen way behind early in the game. The rest of the game was spent playing catch-up, only to let the Keydets run away again. VMI had adjusted their usual high-flying play the previous game against Liberty, and it worked so well that they upset the Flames and a disgusted LU administration fired coach Randy Dunton after the game (despite Dunton winning a conference title in 2004). This time, Bart Lundy and his Panthers were not ready for VMI. The Keydets ran away with a 91-81 win, and after a successful season we wouldn't even play for the conference title.
But this wasn't the only bad memory we had here, as while Winthrop was not the opponent, the Eagle fans were fervently for the Keydets. The student section leaders ran halfway down the arena during the game to taunt our section at various times. One of them held up a sign saying, "High Point, what happened?" as the guy was beaming toward us. He also continued with another sign, "High Point, this is your Low Point!" Whether the Winthrop fans were pulling for VMI because they did not like us or because they thought VMI would be an easy finals opponent, I am not sure. No matter why, taunting a team you aren't even playing is not a mature thing to do. As it turns out, VMI was not an easy opponent as the Eagles barely survived in a three-point win en route to becoming the first (and so far, only) Big South team to win a NCAA Tournament game not in the P.I.G.
2008 was a different story in our experiences with Winthrop. We finally beat Winthrop at home, but our final loss that ended the careers of AZ Reid and Mike Jefferson came again to the Eagles. Only this time, the loss was not at Winthrop, but rather UNC Asheville, the regular-season champion that year. I went on the bus trip earlier in 2008 to WU in the regular season this time. The main point of contention was that Winthrop initially denied us a student section, supposedly in retaliation for us not having room for them at the cramped Millis Center. The section they gave us was up in the far corner of the baseline, isolated from the rest of the building in the spacious Winthrop Coliseum. The only problem once there was with a fan who wanted to talk smac to us. Fortunately we ignored him, as did his fellow Winthrop students that day.
Most of my bad experiences have been as a High Point fan, but some other fans have had similar experiences. After our game in 2006, Winthrop and Coastal Carolina played in the final, and for some reason the two student sections were placed next to each other. After Winthrop escaped with a narrow win, reportedly a Coastal student was punched in the face during the court storming by Winthrop students. In December 2009, I heard a report from a HPU student after I graduated that he was attacked by the Winthrop mascot "Big Stuff". I found this to be a bit hard to believe, but I then a couple weeks later witnessed Big Stuff attack a Charlotte fan. From what I picked up, the Charlotte fan threw a Winthrop t-shirt back that he had caught. The mascot while in costume ran up to the 49ers fan and verbally abused him. The Charlotte fan tried to catch the mascot by his tail to report him to security, but Big Stuff was able to flee. And the Winthrop security explained to the Charlotte fan that if they were to discipline the mascot, they would also have to arrest the Charlotte fan for trying to grab and restrain the Winthrop mascot. Outside of Winthrop, I saw a Winthrop student section act rowdy in a November 2008 game at South Carolina, with one fan kicked out for holding up a sign that said "You Can't Spell USuCk without USC" (he was kicked out due to the arena's policy against using posters, not because of its content officially). While I like seeing our schools poke at the schools above the Red Line, that was a bit too much at another school's venue. While I was torn as for who to root for (I was not yet a USC student at the time), I felt that the way their students acted they had what was coming for them a blowout loss to the Gamecocks.
I try not to fault the majority of Winthrop fans here. Most Winthrop fans I have encountered are just like any of our fans of Our Game. But most of my memories from here came from when Winthrop was at the peak of its prominence. Winthrop won the Big South championship eight times in a 10-year stretch. And when you have a successful team, fans begin to feel entitled and superior to others just because they root for a team that wins. It is a bit silly for schools below the Red Line to do this, since it will always end with a loss. Each March during the NCAA Tournament I pulled for Winthrop to pull a big upset on behalf of the conference, only for them to fall short most of the time. I'm not sure if the most vocal Winthrop fans try to ignore this, or take pleasure at poking at the teams they do beat during the main course of the season. The whole athletic program seems to carry a bit of an air of superiority at times. The logo is of a bird with an eye closed, and its slogan is "WE are the game" (yes, WE is emphasized). And as previously mentioned, the name of the mascot is "Big Stuff".
But times are now different at Winthrop. The teams under Randy Peele have been successful, but not dominant. And this does not please the Winthrop fans who remember the Gregg Marshall era. Fans on their message board have compared Peele's tenure to his tenure at UNC Greensboro, when Peele could not continue the success his predecessor Mike Dement had. And much of the bandwagon support is now gone. Winthrop's crowds have been cut in half from what they were at the peak of the Gregg Marshall era. From having been there this season, the student section is much weaker than before. The student section's leader is a former student who served as Big Stuff during Winthrop's glory years who still has to provide the energy needed to get the current students going. Hopefully this will help bring in a new group of Winthrop fans, who learn that loyalty does not come from winning, and know humility rather than trying to out-smac students at other schools. The fans that had come for the winning are no longer there.
Today Winthrop would play High Point again. I had finally seen High Point once before at Winthrop beat the Eagles at the Coliseum. This was back in 2009, when both programs were way down from their heights. Kyle had featured the game as a G!O!T!N!, pointing out the rewards the fans will get for sticking with their teams in tough times. A Cruz Daniels put-back with two seconds left gave HPU a 42-40 win at Winthrop, the program's lone victory in Rock Hill going into today. High Point did beat Winthrop a little over two weeks ago in High Point. But since then, the Panthers had lost five straight, and the Winthrop Coliseum did not seem like a likely place to end the skid.
So I invested the majority of my rooting interest into the women's game beforehand. Unlike the MEAC and Atlantic Sun and a few other conferences, the Big South does not usually have the men's and women's teams playing a doubleheader in the same venue on the same day. But this was an opportunity for me to see both teams play without going to High Point, something I had never seen before. With the HPU women in first place in women's basketball, I viewed this as the important game. But our student bus did not arrive to see most of the game. It was a very close game throughout, and a solid Eagles team led most of the game. But with the Panthers down one with three minutes to play, our students finally arrived and the momentum shifted. The Panther women prevailed 58-53, and I was happy to see one of our teams do well at Winthrop. I did not expect to see this success continue.
After the women's game, we had to leave our section for our assigned seats. My ticket location was based on where our bench was for the men's game, which was different from the women's game. The Winthrop band also had to relocate, moving to the student section from another corner on the baseline. Initially, our student section was placed at the top of Section 117, at the far edge of the baseline seating. While attendance was higher than usual with an elementary school promotion, there was still plenty of room in the rest of the arena with most of the promotional tickets being behind the baseline on the other side. Yet like in 2008, Winthrop decided to limit our presence by moving our students a long way away from the court.
And behind where I was sitting, on the sixth row behind the HPU bench, there was plenty of room for our fans. So some of our students took advantage just before tip-off and took these empty seats. Winthrop students acted similarly in that 2008 game at South Carolina in taking up empty seats behind their bench. And at least at the beginning, Winthrop staff members were not happy with our students leaving their location far away from the court. The arena staff member in charge came by to look at all tickets in Section 109 (behind the HPU bench). When the students said they did not have their tickets with them, she then told them she would have to assume they did not have any and would have to leave the Coliseum. The frazzled students behind them took off, while the students being threatened for doing no harm to the other ticket holders bought time by waiting for one of their friends to arrive with the HPU student tickets. At some point, HPU was able to convince the aggressive Winthrop staff members to back off. And fortunately they did, and I was more than happy to have my fellow High Point fans join me and form our own cheering section. It helps make away games much more enjoyable. I don't know if that WU usher acted the way she did out of feeling like she had to protect the assigned seats, or if Winthrop was hoping to keep the home-court edge by putting our fans well away from the court. No other section close to game time had an usher checking everybody's tickets when I looked. To me this seemed unnecessary, and another example of visiting fans not being treated well here. But fortunately things worked out, and I have to give credit to whoever from Winthrop decided to back off.
Eventually the game got under way, and we had our fans going. But Winthrop's fans were also ready, as were the Eagles on the court. Winthrop led by 12 points with three minutes until halftime, and led at the half by a score of 30-22. It seemed that this was all going the way of another typical High Point game at Winthrop. Winthrop continued to hold their lead throughout most of the second half. But the defensive-minded Eagles never had the spark on offense to put the game out of the reach, and to my surprise we had some late game magic coming. With two minutes left, Nick Barbour hit a clutch three to tie the game at 47 after the Eagles led by eight with less than six minutes left in the game. Our fans came to life, and the home-court advantage seemed to finally be reduced here. To the shock of the crowd, the Panthers were able to overcome their recent struggles and take over in front of over 3,000 fans at Winthrop. The Panthers won 52-47, and finally our students had a successful bus trip. The 2009 win here was during Christmas break, with a much-reduced crowd from both schools.
While I have had bad memories here, I can't really blame Winthrop itself. Parts of the bad memories come from a lack of success here, and the actions of a small minority of Winthrop people. This can happen any place, and has happened at High Point. As I briefly alluded to here, in 2004 the family of a star Panther was alleged to have thrown batteries at Radford fans, leading to message board stereotyping of what High Point fans are like. And sometimes our fans have acted in ways that I am not proud of. After the tense 2006 game, our fans acted coldly to a Winthrop student leader who wanted to shake our hands after the game. And in this game, some of our students struck a nerve with the Winthrop student leaders by mocking their free-throw routine, which is a tribute to fallen Eagle DeAndre Adams, who died in a car accident following the 2007 season. While it is not realistic to expect HPU students to know the meaning of holding your arm out forward for each free throw like Adams did, it is poor taste to mock the student traditions of the home team. As Winthrop fans who have defended these incidents online say, each fanbase has their own problem fans. And hopefully this game was the start of new memories at Winthrop, with a more even series and a less contentious rivalry.
HIGH POINT 52, at WINTHROP 47 01/28/2012
HIGH POINT 8-14 (4-8) -- N. Barbour 4-6 2-2 14; S. Shine 8-16 5-6 23; B. Mikulic 0-4 0-0 0; C. Law 3-9 3-4 9; X. Martin 0-7 0-0 0; T. Elliott 1-2 0-0 2; J. Simms 0-4 0-1 0; J. Cheek 0-2 4-4 4; L. Harris 0-0 0-0 0; D. Wallace 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 16-50 14-17 52. WINTHROP 9-14 (6-6) -- A. Jones 3-14 3-4 9; J. Jerome 1-4 3-5 5; G. Valentine 2-6 1-2 5; M. Morgan 5-14 3-3 13; R. Middleton 6-16 0-0 15; J. Bourne 0-1 0-0 0; G. Gamble 0-5 0-0 0; R. King 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-60 10-14 47.
Three-point goals: HP 6-18 (N. Barbour 4-5; J. Simms 0-2; J. Cheek 0-1; X. Martin 0-1; S. Shine 2-6; B. Mikulic 0-3), WINT 3-17 (A. Jones 0-4; M. Morgan 0-3; G. Gamble 0-2; R. Middleton 3-7; J. Jerome 0-1); Rebounds: HP 33 (C. Law 9), WINT 38 (M. Morgan 12); Assists: HP 7 (X. Martin 3), WINT 9 (J. Jerome 4); Total Fouls -- HP 15, WINT 15; Fouled Out: HP-None; WINT-None.