ROCK HILL, S.C. -- It took a freshman to bring Winthrop back to where it almost always used to go — the NCAA Tournament.
DJ Burns scored 16 points, 12 of them in the second half, to lead the second-seeded Eagles to a 76-68 win over fifth-seeded Hampton on Sunday in the Big South Conference championship game.
Winthrop is off to its 11th NCAA Tournament, but just the fourth for the Eagles (24-10) since 2007, when coach Gregg Marshall set the bar for small conference excellence, winning the Big South seven times in nine seasons before heading to Wichita State.
“You walk in that gym every day and you look up and those banners just stare at you,” said Eagles coach Pat Kelsey, who made his second Big Dance in his eighth season.
Kelsey blew a kiss to his family as the buzzer sounded and students, let in free at the university president's declaration on Twitter, stormed the court. The No. 2 seed Eagles got to play at home after Hampton (15-19) beat top seed Radford in the semifinals.
Hunter Hale threw the ball almost into the rafters as the students swarmed. The senior transferred to Winthrop after two seasons at Division II Grand Valley State in Michigan. His 10 points included a soft jumper with the shot clock winding down that put Winthrop up seven with 1:08 to go.
The freshman Burns flipped a game that Hampton appeared might run away with. The Pirates led by as many as 15 in the first half and were up 39-32 with 16 minutes to go,
Burns scored 12 of Winthrop's next 21 points on a combination of soft hooks and power spin moves as Hampton gambled by not double teaming him.
“People have doubled and had some success. People have doubled and gotten burned, pun intended,” Kelsey said.
Hampton's Jermaine Marrow, the nation's third leading scorer at 25 points a game, was held to 18 points. The senior played all but three minutes over the Pirates three tournament games and scored 32 in a quarterfinal win over Gardner-Webb and 36 in the semifinal win over Radford.
Ben Stanley added 15 points for the Pirates. Stanley and Greg Heckstall, who had 16 rebounds, also played all 40 minutes for Hampton.
“I'll never second guess myself that I played my seniors and my main players the minutes that I did. It's about getting to this moment. If I didn't do it, we probably wouldn't be here,” Hampton coach Ed Joyner said.
Hampton: The Pirates needed a huge game from Marrow, who went 6 for 11 on 3-pointers in the semifinal win, and didn't quite get it. The senior was 5 of 19 from the field, 1 of 10 on 3-pointers. Still, it was a run like few have seen in the Big South for the Pirates in their second season in the league.
Winthrop: The Eagles needed balance and got it. Nine of the 10 players who got on the court scored and four ended up in double figures.
HAPPY TO BE THERE
Kelsey wouldn't say what seed he thought Winthrop should be in the NCAA Tournament. He just can't wait to get there.
“You walk in the gym and there are going to be (four) games that day so the air is frigid. There's blue carpet all over the back hallways. And everybody has a lanyard on like ‘Wayne's World,'” Kelsey said. “It's just awesome.”
AGONY OF DEFEAT
Joyner and Marrow cried as they talked to reporters after the game. Marrow is from Newport News, Virginia, and his coach said he was told not to go to nearby Hampton.
Marrow leaves as the Pirates top all-time scorer (2,680) and second in school history in assists (633).
Talking through his tears, Joyner said Marrow was as close to him as his sons.
“I put everything in him to make sure this young man survived and made it out. This young man is 20 hours from graduating or less. He's going to have an opportunity to play basketball and do something for himself, his family, his son he just had,” Joyner said.
Marrow buried his face in his hoodie. “This man gave me an opportunity He believed in me from day one. This school believed in me. I'll love him for that forever.”
Hampton: The season is likely over and the Pirates will need to figure out how to replace Marrow.
Winthrop: There's a Selection Sunday party in Rock Hill next Sunday, where the Eagles could sneak as high as a 15 seed.
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