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The Journey of a Lifetime

Winthrop's First Trip to the NCAA Tournament Was Destined to End in Defeat, but the People Involved Will Never Forget It

March 16, 1999|CHRIS DUFRESNE

INDIANAPOLIS — What a week it was with Winthrop.

I miss the fellas already: Money, Beast, Scratch, Dan the Man, Bip, Top Dog, Bubbles, Sweat Pea, Fish Tank, O'Dog, JP, Earl, RC Cola.

Winthrop University advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time last week, not bad for a school at which, until 1974, the students wore dresses.

Funny, but the final act was as predictable as Rodman in drag.

You knew Winthrop would end up Lossthrop.

Never has a 16th-seeded school defeated a No. 1 in the 14 seasons since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.

That wasn't going to change because you shadowed the team for a week and grew fond of the kids and coaches; because you hung out with players from sunrise until curfew and, uh-hum, beyond.

Winthrop wasn't going to shock the world because you had unfettered access and uncovered that five players at midseason got tattoos in Gastonia, N.C; that the coach's wife has a thing for Steve Lavin; that Winthrop guard Roger Toxey couldn't shake a cold.

Tournament death did not take a holiday because you were a fly on the wall as first-year Winthrop Coach Gregg Marshall and staff put together a game plan they honestly thought could work.

Auburn didn't care that you saw Winthrop players get floor burns at practice, hug relatives in the stands at the RCA Dome here, beam like kids at Christmas when their new warmups arrived.

Who was anyone kidding?

The Winthrop Eagles clocked into the NCAA tournament at 3 p.m. EST last Thursday and checked out before Duke's first bed check.

Auburn put the wood to Winthrop, 80-41, in a first-round South Regional game.

The tightwad NCAA wanted to put Winthrop on a flight back home to Rock Hill, S.C., that night--"Go ahead and finish up that shower, though."--but Winthrop returned home Saturday.

"Do we get, like a watch or something?" Winthrop freshman forward Dan Tollens wondered.

What was the point, someone had asked Marshall. Why do 16th-seeded teams even bother?

Marshall could have melted rock with his laser stare.

This was never about getting out of the NCAA tournament.

It was about getting into it.

It was about daily struggles: blisters, ointments, sprained ankles, fragile egos, tape and fleeting moments in the sun.

It was about getting picked to finish last in the Big South Conference and finishing first. It was about a promising coach from a school with a funny name taking a spatula and flip-flopping a 7-20 season to 21-7 in one year, using three walk-ons and one player recruited by e-mail.

"It's about the journey," Marshall said. "I lost a grandparent this season. Players lost relatives. Incredible things take place on the journey."

Four months ago, freshman forward Eyo "Bubbles" Effiong was in Beirut, Lebanon, fighting a maze of red tape that delayed his letters of transit.

After the thumping by Auburn, Effiong said he considered playing in the NCAA tournament a miracle.

Three weeks ago, a doctor diagnosed string-bean sophomore shooting guard Robbie "Money" Waldrop with a swollen spleen. Waldrop said the doctor told him he could die if he played. Waldrop missed two games, got a second opinion, and scored six points against Auburn.

After the 39-point defeat, Waldrop said, "My dream came true, no matter if we lost by 40 or by one."

What a week it was with Winthrop:

SUNDAY, MARCH 7 / Biggest Thing to Happen Since. . . .

6 p.m.: Five-hundred fans have packed a campus gym to celebrate the biggest night at Winthrop since . . . ?


"Bob Hope was once here at the Coliseum," Zeta Sistare, Winthrop, class of 1955, says. "That was the fullest it's been except for [pro] wrestling."

Actress Andie MacDowell went to Winthrop, might have attended four weddings and a funeral here, but did not graduate. Will Rogers passed through in the 1930s; Hurricane Hugo in the late '80s.

But nothing tops this.

Tonight, Winthrop worshipers blush garnet and gold as they await CBS' tournament pairings telecast.

Winthrop has come a long way, baby. Founded in 1886 as a teacher's college, it was a women's school, with one glaring exception, for 88 years. In a stupendous naming-rights deal, Boston philanthropist Robert C. Winthrop handed D.B. Johnson $50 of his own money toward a $1,500 Peabody Foundation grant.

Bingo, the school's name was his.

Eat your heart out, 3Com.

What was all-woman Winthrop like?

"They locked us in at 10:30 at night," Sistare says. "Us sweet, innocent, Southern belles had to be protected. We had to go in groups of three to leave campus."

Girls, attired in uniforms, once formed "the Blue Line" marching to church each week. Walter Schrader forced the school's co-ed hand when, after suing to get in, he enrolled as a graduate student in the late 1960s.

"Fairest Flower of the Southland," the school's alma mater, had to be rewritten when the boys hit campus.

Winthrop, a public school of 5,500 students located 20 miles south of Charlotte, did not have men's basketball until 1978, did not move to Division I until the 1986-87 season.

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