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Winthrop's upset bid put to rest by C. Carolina Chanticleers win 3rd Big South title


CHARLESTON, S.C. -- When the 64-team NCAA tournament field is announced a week from today, people will have to look someplace other than the Big South Conference for this year's improbable entry.

Coastal Carolina ended Winthrop's illogical run through the conference tournament and dominated yesterday's championship, 78-65, at the North Charleston Coliseum.

Eighth-seeded Winthrop (14-16) was playing its fourth game in as many days, and the Eagles' weary legs couldn't keep up with Coastal Carolina's talent. It was the Chanticleers' third conference title in the past four years, and the constant has been four-time Player of the Year Tony Dunkin, the only Chanticleer remaining from the team that lost to Indiana by 10 in the first round of the NCAAs two years ago.

At best, Coastal Carolina (22-9) will be a No. 15 seed in its region, but it's a loose team on a roll. Four transfers have meshed with Dunkin during the Chanticleers 11-game win streak.

Their last loss was Feb. 6 at the Towson Center, and the Chanticleers' only regret here was that they didn't get another shot at Towson State, the regular-season champion that was ambushed by Winthrop in the quarterfinals. The Tigers swept Coastal Carolina in the regular season.

"Everyone on the team wanted to play Towson State again," Dunkin said. "We felt we would have whipped them bad this time. We were sure we were going to meet them in the championship game."

The Chanticleers' closest call in the tournament was their semifinal against UMBC, a 66-59 victory Friday night that wasn't settled until the last 20 seconds. Against the Retrievers, the late hero was sophomore guard Keke Hicks, a transfer from Oklahoma.

Dunkin and Hicks were joined on the all-tournament team by junior forward Mohammed Acha, one of two Coastal Carolina starters who made Vincennes (Ind.) one of the nation's best junior college teams last season. With all of the new talent, coach Russ Bergman said he knew that the Chanticleers would be playing better in March than they did in December and January.

"We've come light years," Bergman said. "I'm like a jockey riding 11 thoroughbreds. I just point them to the finish line and let them go. We played an awesome non-conference schedule. We know we're going to play a Top 10 team [in the NCAAs], but we're not going to face better defense than we did at Arkansas."

Coastal Carolina is above Towson State in the assorted power ratings. Its five non-conference losses came at Boston College (4 points), Hawaii (4), Arkansas (19), the College of Charleston (5) and Missouri (19).

Winthrop senior forward Mark Hailey had 27 points against Towson State and 32 in the semifinals against Radford, but Coastal Carolina limited him to 12 points. Hailey and teammate Eddie Gay, who had 24 points and 12 rebounds, made the all-tournament team. Dunkin had 28 points, Hicks 24 and Acha 20 and 12 rebounds.

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