NCAA Tournament Play-In Game - Arkansas-Pine Bluff vs Winthrop
Arkansas-Pine Bluff 61, Winthrop 44
From the ashes of early-season misery, the Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions have authored one of the more remarkable narratives the sport of college basketball has ever seen.
As a result, one very giddy group of young men will have the right to get blasted by Duke in Friday's first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, those two statements don't seem to belong together, but in March, they do. The world of the big hitters and heavyweights is quite different from the low-key realms of college roundball. While the blue-chip programs fight for national championships, the soul of the sport breathes even more deeply and fully when small-college kids duke it out (pun intended) for the very right to play Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils.
Much of the country might still be waiting for the NCAA Tournament to really start, but if officially began on Tuesday night at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio. Don't tell Winthrop and Arkansas-Pine Bluff that their hardwood collision didn't matter.
More specifically, don't tell Arkansas-Pine Bluff that its 17-point win wasn't anything less than a seminal moment in the life of a program and a conference.
The Golden Lions, under Coach George Ivory, began this 2009-2010 trek by compiling an 0-11 record. UAPB played a murderer's row of teams from power conferences in the ranks of Division I, and all on the road as well. The Golden Lions played at Texas-El Paso, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Missouri, Kansas State and Oregon.
They lost all those games and four others. It's safe to say that 0-11 teams just don't make the NCAA Tournament, but because of the magic of small conference tournaments, the Golden Lions managed to overthrow conventional wisdom.
UAPB finished second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and parlayed that positioning into a favorable draw in the SWAC Tournament, which was played over the past weekend in Bossier City, La. The second-seeded Golden Lions benefited even more when top seed and regular-season SWAC champion Jackson State got bounced in the quarterfinals by Grambling State. UAPB proceeded to win three games in three days, outlasting the Texas Southern Tigers by a 50-38 score in the SWAC Tournament final.
Yes, it had happened: From the rock-bottom emptiness of an 0-11 start, this team had risen above the temptation to quit and transcended the laws of probabilities and percentages. When the takedown of Texas Southern - made possible by superb defense which limited the Tigers to 26 percent shooting - had been completed, a group of Golden Lions made history. UAPB had not only overcome its brutal bagel in the first 11 games of the season; the pupils of Pine Bluff had earned the first NCAA Tournament berth in the program's entire history.
That would be enough of a victory for most schools, but not this one. Pine Bluff proved to be more than the Winthrop Eagles could handle in this neutral-site showdown.
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If UAPB's field-goal percentage defense was outstanding against Texas Southern in the SWAC final, it was just as good on Tuesday against Winthrop. The Eagles, under coach Randy Peele, entered this game having made two NCAA Tournaments in the past three seasons. Thanks to former coach Gregg Marshall (now at Wichita State), Winthrop has reached nine of the last 12 NCAA Tournaments. Winthrop owned all the experience and tournament-tested toughness heading into this contest, but the people of Pine Bluff didn't get the memo.
Except for a 13-2 Winthrop run which gave the Eagles a 23-17 lead roughly two minutes before halftime, the Golden Lions dominated this game. Pine Bluff - fresh from smothering Texas Southern - was similarly stingy on defense against Winthrop, the champion of the Big South Conference. UAPB held the Eagles to just 29 percent shooting and watched a clearly uptight and flustered opponent hit only 2 of 21 3-pointers. Winthrop became unnerved by Pine Bluff's defensive pressure, and that's why the Big South champs tallied only 44 points on the evening.
Pine Bluff's remarkable resurrection from the rubble of 0-11 is made even more special by the fact that this is the SWAC's first NCAA Tournament victory since 1993, with 13th-seeded Southern University knocked off fourth-seeded Georgia Tech in the first round of the Dance.
As the jubilant kids from Pine Bluff, Ark., now rev up the bus for a trip to play Duke on Friday night, you can bet a lot of dancing is taking place. One very special team won't win a national title in 2010, but it just won a few prizes that are even more special: a place in history, and a spot in the hearts of college basketball fans everywhere.
By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer