There are not usually too many games to select from on Tuesday, but tonight the Big South was active with everybody but Campbell playing. The closest game available to me was at Charleston Southern, who would host Gardner-Webb. But while I have had more positive experiences at Charleston Southern than Winthrop, when creating my "I Will" list I picked the WU game. The Eagles would play Presbyterian, and it would be a clash between defensive-minded coaches Gregg Nibert and Randy Peele. As Matt Cayuela mentioned in his recap of the Gardner-Webb game, you can always expect a close game with this coaching style. While many fans hate defensive basketball, I like slow tempo games if it means better shot selection, fewer turnovers, and a closer game. This would be in contrast with the JUCO game I was at the night before. In that game, the home team was upset by the last-place team in the conference when a tired team on its fourth game in five days ran the ball too much and took themselves out of the game, losing 95-76. I knew that there would not be 171 points combined in this game.
I also became more interested in this game when I was at the High Point-Winthrop game, and the Eagles announced the promotion for this Valentine's Day game. Winthrop's mascot Big Stuff would go for a Guinness World Record for most hugs in one hour. He would have to hug 1,750 different fans before the game to set the world record. I decided then that since I would be coming to this game, I would wear my High Point shirt, the same shirt I got when we beat the Eagles at the Millis Center this season. Big Stuff would have to get the world record through hugging a High Point t-shirt!
I asked at the box office if they had any $15 seats left at midcourt, and it turns out they did on the front row! It is not as close as the front row seats at Charleston Southern, but they do have cushioned backs. That was not a good early sign for Big Stuff's world record attempt if someone could get that good a seat 55 minutes before tip-off. I was expecting to see Big Stuff highlighted right away, but he was down the hall in the concourse area. There was a video camera on him showing on the coliseum's monitors taping his progress. And when I looked, he wasn't being hugged left and right which would need to happen for the world record. So I put down my jacket and notebook and headed for the concourse. Once on the concourse, I put down my camera and gave Big Stuff a big hug.
As one would expect, wearing the t-shirt of a conference rival raises eyebrows. There were a few people thinking I was scouting for HPU, even though we do not play Winthrop again in the regular season this year and probably will not in the tournament either. But most Winthrop people were very nice to me. I sat next to a Winthrop season ticket holder, who was conflicted in rooting interests as he had attended PC but gotten his master's degree from Winthrop and lives in Rock Hill now. I talked to one media relations staff member who also asked if I was scouting, so I told him what I was doing. He seemed interested when I told him about the 800 Games Project as he had known that Kyle had visited Winthrop a lot in the past.
I know many High Point fans would find this sacrilegious to hug Big Stuff. We have had bad memories here, and the same is true even with some of our fans' dealings with Big Stuff himself a couple years ago. But these are different times now, and all Big South fans need to be supportive of each other. Valentine's Day is supposed to be about love and compassion, and we must love all our mid-majors. Winthrop has gone through less of a struggle than we have, but the odds are stacked against them as well. We must forget bad memories and bitter rivalries, and bond through a love of mid-major basketball. When we do not get national coverage and are outside the realm of most sports fans, we are all in this together. So when a rival mascot in your league is trying to do something nobody in the world has ever done, you must help him do it.
Unfortunately, I think Big Stuff fell short. He was only at 120 hugs when I hugged him 45 minutes before tip-off, and he would need over 1,600 more for the record. He might have gotten more hugs if he was standing at the main entrance to greet everyone. But that probably would not have mattered, since, as I could figure out with my seating location, attendance was not good. Attendance was only 1,309, so even if Big Stuff hugged everybody he would have come over 400 fans short. Winthrop has suffered in attendance since Gregg Marshall left, and it is a reminder that we all will face struggles even if things are going well for us now. We have to appreciate each other, and hugging another team's mascot can be part of that.
Tonight Winthrop showed its appreciation for its seniors: Reggie Middleton, Matt Morgan, Andre Jones, and George Valentine. These four seniors have been competitive for the Eagles, even if they haven't been at the level of Gregg Marshall's players. They were all on a Big South title team two years ago, something most players in the league can't say. High Point fans will also have fond memories of these seniors, as HPU has gone 6-2 against WU in the past four years. Tonight these seniors would look to finish their careers at the Winthrop Coliseum on a high note. But with the slow defensive play, nobody had great stats. And it was definitely not Valentine's Day; he went 1 for 5 and missed his lone free throw attempt.
After both teams traded baskets the first two minutes, the Blue Hose struck with back to back threes. And after that, it would be a slow-tempo defensive struggle as expected with the Eagles trailing by six to eight points most of the first half. Presbyterian led 22-16 at halftime. While there were few great plays, a slow defensive game ensured an exciting finish in the second half.
Winthrop came back in the second half, as one would expect at home. Their defense kept the Blue Hose from ever pulling away even as the Eagles struggled. Winthrop took the lead with five minutes to play for the first time, and led by four with just over two minutes to play. But Presbyterian had what it took to fight back on the road. Al'Lonzo Coleman was fouled off the ball, and Coleman went to the line for one and the bonus. Coleman is not normally a great free throw shooter, but he made both ends count to make it a two point game. After the Eagles responded with a basket, Pierre Miller was fouled shooting a three with just over a minute left and made everything to cut the Eagle lead to one. Winthrop never got a good shot off on the ensuing possession, and PC would get a chance to take the lead. Coleman tipped in his own rebound, and the Blue Hose led by one with 22 seconds left. Joab Jerome, who had been making some big baskets for Winthrop, was then called for traveling. Miller made his free throws, and it was up to senior shooter Andre Jones to get Winthrop to overtime. But Jones could not convert his final opportunity at home, and Presbyterian got the road win 48-45. The win puts all teams ranked 5th through 10th out of 11 in the conference just about even, although the Blue Hose are ineligible for the postseason and just playing for pride.
Hugging other mascots is a simple way to move on from the past. And I know that there are some of my fellow High Point fans who would not do such a thing. After our game in the Big South Tournament six years ago there, our fans refused to shake the hand of a Winthrop student leader after our heated game. On the way back on the bus, our students began to talk about how they wish they had simply punched him. What we cannot lose focus of is that we need sportsmanship, and our schools below the Red Line need to lead the way. Opposing players hug each other all the time after the game, and that is after they are in a game where there goal is to beat the other players. So we need to forgive and forget our bad memories in the past. Winthrop University is a respectable institution established as a school for South Carolina teachers, and they still maintain a solid reputation in doing so today even as they have expanded their student body and curriculum. A lot of their fans who came when they are winning have now left, and the fans of Winthrop who have stayed are their true and good fans. And all of these fans should be appreciated by other fans at other schools. We are all in this together, and need to love one another.
PRESBYTERIAN 48, at WINTHROP 45 02/14/2012
PRESBYTERIAN 12-14 (6-10) -- A. Coleman 3-12 2-4 8; K. Mutakabbir 2-9 2-4 6; J. Johnson 3-6 0-0 8; P. Miller 3-5 5-5 13; J. Reynolds 1-2 2-2 4; W. Truss 2-5 0-0 4; E. Washington 1-4 0-0 3; R. McTavish 0-1 0-0 0; J. Clyburn 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 16-46 11-15 48. WINTHROP 11-17 (8-9) -- G. Valentine 1-5 0-1 2; A. Jones 2-12 0-0 4; R. Middleton 3-8 2-4 8; J. Jerome 6-11 2-2 14; M. Morgan 5-12 1-1 11; J. Bourne 1-1 0-0 2; G. Gamble 2-6 0-0 4; A. Smith 0-2 0-0 0; L. Brown 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-57 5-8 45.
Three-point goals: PRES 5-10 (J. Johnson 2-4; P. Miller 2-3; K. Mutakabbir 0-1; E. Washington 1-2), WINT 0-8 (A. Jones 0-5; R. Middleton 0-2; A. Smith 0-1); Rebounds: PRES 34 (A. Coleman 18), WINT 26 (G. Valentine 6); Assists: PRES 9 (A. Coleman 3), WINT 6 (G. Valentine 3); Total Fouls -- PRES 13, WINT 14; Fouled Out: PRES-None; WINT-None.