(Rock Hill, S.C.) – The Winthrop Men’s basketball team clinched the Big South regular-season title Thursday (Feb. 18) after defeating High Point 76-70, which earns the Eagles the top seed in the conference tournament for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
Winthrop is currently sitting at the top of the Big South with a 17-1 conference record this season and the team is 20-1 overall.
The Eagles won the Big South championship last season, but were denied the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although some of the measures put in place due to COVID-19 have presented some challenges, the team has adapted to whatever has been thrown at it this season.
Head Coach Pat Kelsey said the season, with many new regulations, has offered a “unique” challenge to the team.
“It’s the price you pay for being able to compete and play college basketball, so we’re really lucky,” said Kelsey.
“We have to coach in masks, which is unique and different. The players don’t have to practice in masks, but there was a time during the preseason where they did have to practice with masks.” he said.
Kelsey said he credits his players ability to adapt to the challenges this year.
“We have a very veteran team, which is a blessing and a huge advantage from a coaching standpoint. We have a bunch of juniors and seniors, guys that have logged so many minutes in college basketball. So many of those guys set the tone for our team.” Kelsey said.
Assistant Coach Dave Davis said they have a team of “unselfish, hard-working players” despite basketball being “more selfish than other sports.”
For example, Sophomore guard Russell Jones Jr. says he never considered not playing this season, despite the challenges.
“Just my love for the game, you know, basketball has always been what I’ve wanted to do,” said Jones. “I’ve playing since I was 3. Basketball is my happiness, my peace, so you know it really was a no brainer for me to play during the pandemic,” he said.
“Somehow, someway, we have a group that is interested in team success instead of me success. I’ve been doing this forever, so I know how rare that is,” said Davis.
“Credit to coach Kelsey for creating a culture that puts the good of all of us ahead of the good of me. It’s a 25 strong mentality, meaning that every manager, every walk-on, every scholarship player, all buying into what we’re trying to do.”
For Jones, playing without fans has been one the most difficult things to adjust to.
“That part feels bad. Just how packed the games were last year, how electric the crowd was, just not having that aspect at our games this year is very different. As players, we love the crowd,” said Jones.
However, Winthrop announced this week it would begin allowing a limited number of fans to attend basketball and volleyball games beginning Feb. 23.
The Eagles completed their two game series against High Point Friday (Feb. 19) with a 71-63 victory, which has the team in a prime position to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament this March.
* Rachel Griffith contributed to this story.