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Toy soldiers

Winthrop hopes to show Notre Dame the spirit and tenacity it used to earn its ranking

March 16, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

SPOKANE, WASH. — In the realm of motivational tools, the little plastic doll seemed sketchy at best.

It was a miniature version of a pro wrestler known as "Junkyard Dog." Gregg Marshall, the basketball coach at tiny Winthrop, had misgivings about bringing it into his locker room.

Marshall tentatively announced that the child's toy would be a team award, passed along each game to the player showing the most tenacity.

"I was a little leery at first how the guys would react," the coach recalled.

But the gimmick worked.

Winthrop went 28-4 this season, earning its first top 25 ranking and a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The Eagles won with equal parts offense and determination.

Determination as in defense and some of the best rebounding statistics in the nation.

Exactly the sort of effort they will need as a No. 11-seeded team facing sixth-seeded Notre Dame (24-7) in a first-round game today in the Midwest Regional.

"It's going to be a very challenging game," Irish guard Russell Carter said. "It's going to be a scrappy game."

Despite seven trips to the NCAA tournament in nine years, Winthrop is still trying to break through in the first round, losing close opening games in each of the last two seasons. Hence all this talk about resolve.

"We'll play hard and see what happens," forward Craig Bradshaw said.

The "Junkyard Dog" award dates to December when a friend of Marshall's, a psychologist, watched Winthrop play Wisconsin and heard a TV announcer compare the Eagles to junkyard dogs.

The friend went on EBay and purchased the toy.

"He said, 'Go with this, this will be great,' " Marshall recalled. "Initially there was a little apprehension on the players' parts, but now they probably compete and they're a little jealous if they don't get it."

The figure, still in its cardboard box, is earned not with points or flashy plays but with rebounds and floor burns that come from diving for loose balls.

The last few days, Winthrop players have prepared in suitable fashion, hammering each other in practice, leading to spilled blood and at least one concussion.

They want another shot at the doll.

"Have you ever seen a junkyard where there's more than one dog?" Marshall asked. "You only need one."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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