Less than two months after UNC-Asheville came back from a 23-point deficit to win its first game against Winthrop this season, the Bulldogs again staged a big comeback against the Eagles to win 77-68 on Sunday, this time for a Big South tournament championship and NCAA tournament berth.
Down nine points at halftime and 11 points just seconds into the second half, UNC-Asheville outscored Winthrop 53-33 over the last 19:30 of the second half, riding a 31-percent three-point percentage and just six turnovers for the game. Winthrop, which had the top scoring offense in the Big South this season at 82.7 points per game, managed a 35.2 field goal percentage as a team to go with a measly 15.2 three-point percentage.
UNC-Asheville freshman Dwayne Sutton led the Bulldogs with 25 points and 18 rebounds and UNC-Asheville won its sixth Big South tournament championship and clinched its sixth NCAA tournament appearance thanks to the Big South conference automatic bid, which goes to the conference tournament champion. Winthrop was denied its 12th Big South championship, though senior guard Jimmy Gavin did everything he could to keep his team in it, scoring 31 points on the afternoon. hit four of the team's five made three-pointers, but it took him 13 attempts to get there and shot less than 50 percent on all shots in the game.
After a back-and-forth first half, Winthrop rode a 13-0 run to turn a 20-18 deficit into a 31-20 lead, which would end up tied for the Eagles' largest lead of the game. After Winthrop led 33-24 at halftime, Asheville gradually cut into it, eventually taking the 47-46 lead on a Dylan Smith three-pointer with 11:40 left. UNCA would not relinquish the lead despite Gavin's best efforts, including his three-point play with 3:27 left that temporarily cut the Asheville lead to three (64-61). An 8-0 UNCA run over the final minutes of the game cemented the Bulldogs' victory.
The two teams have their share of conference championship game experience, with Winthrop appearing in their third-straight Big South title game appearance and UNC-Asheville having won five titles in school history entering Sunday. The two teams split their series during the 2015-2016 regular season, with Asheville winning the aforementioned comeback in the first game at home in early January and Winthrop winning the second game at home in late February.
UNC-Asheville has a week to celebrate before they likely receive the dreaded 16-seed in the NCAA tournament, where they will try to be the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed.