History a given in Winthrop's play-in game

03/16/2010 12:00 AM

03/16/2010 12:00 AM

DAYTON, Ohio - There will be plenty of history made during today's opening-round game of the NCAA tournament between Winthrop and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

The Eagles (19-13) played in the inaugural play-in game in 2001 and will become the first team to take part in the contest twice.

The Golden Lions, meanwhile, will be making their first appearance in the NCAAs.

That likely will mark the end of tournament firsts for the two teams; the winner moves on to meet No. 1 seed Duke on Friday in Jacksonville, Fla. A No. 16 seed never has beaten a No 1 seed.

"We are very excited about being here," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said. "I told the players we were going to be the only game played Tuesday with a national television audience."

There are similarities to the teams' styles of play; both are defensive-minded.

Winthrop is holding opponents to 61.4 points per game and a .397 shooting percentage. Arkansas-Pine Bluff limits foes to 64.7 points and .407 shooting.

If those stats hold, the first team to 50 could win. That would be fine with Peele and his grind-it-out approach.

One concern Peele has is how his team will respond after 10 days before its last game - a victory against Coastal Carolina in the Big South championship.

"I want to see how sharp we are with the basketball and the decisions we make," he said.

Winthrop and UAPB both got off to slow starts this season and then roared through their conference tournaments.

The Eagles were 5-9 after a loss at Charleston Southern. That's when senior forward Mantoris Robinson told his team what it was going to take to turn the season around.

"I called my teammates out. I told them this is never going to happen again," Robinson said. "We had too many guys that played hard to get Winthrop to where it is to let this happen."

The team woke from its slumber and went on to win 10 of its next 11 games. The Eagles closed the season by winning 14 of 18.

The Golden Lions had a good reason to explain their early struggles: They played a brutal nonconference schedule that included trips to Colorado, UTEP, Akron, Arizona State, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Missouri, Kansas State and Oregon. Five of those teams are in the NCAA tournament.

UAPB didn't play a home game until Jan. 16 and played 14 consecutive road games

"It was tough, but it was a great learning experience," UAPB guard Terrance Calvin said. "Being in front of those crowds really helped us learn to play defense."

Slowly, the Golden Lions began to reap the benefits of the schedule. The team won its first two SWAC games - on the road of course.

"We got to 1-11, 2-11, 3-11, and then we looked up and we were almost even," UAPB forward/center Lebaron Weathers said. "We played hard. We never gave up."

So does Winthrop's experience and the time off play to their advantage? Or does Arkansas-Pine Bluff have the edge by staying in rhythm with three days off and having a bunch of road tests under its belt?

Regardless of the answer, history will be made.

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