Winthrop women derail HPU in final
As the clock ticked down, High Point University wing Lindsay Puckett looked over with a look of dissatisfaction as Winthrop began its celebration.
After going through the customary handshakes with the opposition, the Panthers quietly walked back to the locker room wiping away tears — dreams of putting HPU in the NCAA Tournament for the first time left for another year.
Top-seeded HPU couldn’t contain three-time Big South player of the year Dequesha McClanahan, couldn’t make up ground when she went to the bench because of foul trouble with just nine minutes to go and committed too many turnovers in the open court as the No. 3 seeded Eagles posted an 87-74 victory in the championship game of the Big South Tournament on Sunday at Coastal Carolina.
The 87 points were the most in a tournament final since Liberty scored 88 in 2005 and the 13-point final margin was the first double-digit difference in a final since 2007.
The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak for HPU, which fell to 22-10 and 0-4 in Big South finals. But the Panthers still advance to the postseason having locked up the league’s WNIT bid as the regular-season champion.
“We came a long way this year,” Stacia Robertson, who led the Panthers with 18 points and 10 rebounds, said. “I don’t think a lot of people expected us to get this far. It’s disappointing of course. But I think we surprised a lot of people.”
McClanahan led all scorers with 24 points and also grabbed 13 rebounds and dished six assists. She scored six straight to start a 12-4 run that put the Eagles up 64-56 with 12:50 to go. The first of those six came on two free throws. She scored on a layup after a steal and then after Puckett hit a jumper, she drove for a layup as the shot clock expired. HPU never got closer than seven.
“My teammates looked to me as a leader so I can’t show any fear,” McClanahan said. “We fed off each other. We created some separation and that’s why we won this game.”
She got plenty of scoring support as Erica Williams had 18, Samiya Wright 13 and Tiffany Charles 12.
That combination helped the Eagles increase their lead from 9 to 11 while McClanahan was on the bench for nearly five minutes. HPU coach DeUnna Hendrix said the Panthers had no thought of being more deliberate on offense while McClanahan was out.
“It was more about our defense,” Hendrix said. “We needed to get stops and we couldn’t get stops.
“And when (McClanahan) went out, we thought this was an opportunity because they only play seven or eight. That’s why we kept running because he hoped to wear them down.”
The Eagles were almost flawless in scoring off Panthers turnovers, forcing 13 and scoring 25 points. HPU forced 11 Winthrop turnovers but scored only 10 points.
“We talked about it going in,” Hendrix said. “They don’t force too many but you might as well count it if it is a live turnover because they are as quick as we are. But, we haven’t slowed it down all year. That would have been uncharacteristic of us.”
The Panthers also did not have any fast-break points.
“We didn’t play High Point basketball,” Ashante Richard said. “We like to run and we didn’t run.”
The Panthers had a seven-point lead with 1:19 left in the first half. But, the tide started turning then. Winthrop scored 11 of the last 12 points of the half to lead 42-39 at the break.
HPU forced five ties early in the second half before the Eagles opened up their eight-point lead.
Latrice Phelps had 14 but Kaylah Keys had one of her worst outings of the season with 10 points and four turnovers.
“I don’t think going to the NIT is a negative connotation at all,” Hendrix said. “For what this team has done this year, there’s no reason to go out of here holding our heads down.”