ROCK HILL, S.C. — If you spend any time around Winthrop’s basketball team, you’ll hear one consistent quote.
“We’re trained for this.”
It would be understandable to question whether or not the Eagles were trained for losing three games out of four as the regular season wound down. It would be even more understandable to question whether or not the Eagles were trained for falling behind by 15 points eight minutes into Sunday’s championship game.
The answer to both questions was a resounding yes.
The three losses led to a stronger presence from Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey’s so-called “leadership council” of Josh Ferguson, Chandler Vaudrin, and tournament MVP Hunter Hale.
“(Vaudrin and Hale) are two of our leadership council guys. They’re leading the way,” Kelsey stated after the Eagles’ semifinal win over Gardner-Webb. “We worked all year to be trained and prepared for this moment, and these guys are seeing the fruits of all their labor. I’m really proud of them.”
The 15-point deficit — and the response from it — allowed the training Big South Freshman of the Year DJ Burns has received over the last couple of weeks to hit home. Burns scored 12 of his 16 points in the closing 20, with four coming on back-to-back buckets following an errant free throw that led to an “inadvertent whistle” and the possession arrow awarding the ball to the Eagles.
“The adversity DJ faced — Coach (Skip) Prosser used to call it ‘aggressive counseling’. That’s the politically correct term for getting your butt chewed out a lot over the last couple of weeks,” Kelsey said, half-joking. “Even though he wasn’t playing his best, he didn’t hang his head. He only played seven or eight minutes the other day, I think, against Gardner-Webb. He was the most vocal guy on our entire bench. We call it being above the line. Because his mentality and his disposition stayed that way, he was ready when his name was called. His name was called in the second half, and he was a beast.”
Then there was Hale.
The Division II grad transfer from Grand Valley State stepped into the Eagle program, took a leadership role — if gradually doing so — and scored 59 points in three tournament games on the way to MVP plaudits. Hale spoke to us after the semifinals in Radford about the work he and Vaudrin had put in to reach the Division I level after enjoying successful careers at D2 schools.
“You’ve gotta keep working, and you’ve gotta keep your head up,” added Hale. “I always knew that if I put the work in, I could get back to where I wanted to be. Now we have a great opportunity to go to the (NCAA) tournament, if we win one more game. It doesn’t matter who we face. I’m just ready to play again.”
Play, he did.
Hale scored 10 points and grabbed six boards in the title game.
“It’s just indescribable,” Hale said after the title game. “I thought the feeling I had last year after I won one was good, but this right here is just…I can’t even put it into words. Just knowing that we’re gonna be in the tournament, in the national spotlight…this is why I came to Winthrop. I knew with the pieces that we have here, the people that we have here, and the coaches that we have here, we could get it done.”
Roughly 15 minutes before that press conference, another took place. The tone was decidedly different in that one.
Hampton guard Jermaine Marrow — who almost didn’t even spend his final collegiate season as a Pirate, after he placed his name into — and removed it from — the transfer portal — stepped onto the dais after putting forth one of the most exciting tournament runs we’ve seen in recent years. It took scant moments before the emotion of the last four years and the moment at hand hit him.
“I’m a kid from downtown Newport News. It’s a rough spot. (Hampton coach Buck Joyner) gave me an opportunity that not too many people wanted to give me,” said Marrow, through tears. “He believed in me from day one. The school believed in me from day one. I’ll love them for that forever.”
The love Joyner had for his star senior was equally obvious in his words.
“He’s probably as close to me as my sons. We’ve had that relationship together,” Joyner said after Sunday’s game. “I remember when we had the conversation, and he decided that this where he wanted to be, and that he wanted to play for me. The first place I went in the city, I was told by a gentleman that he wouldn’t make it past his sophomore year. He didn’t need to stay home.
“I took that personal. I put everything … everything in me (into) helping make sure this young man survived, and made it out. At the end of the day, at this point next year, he’s gonna have an opportunity to play basketball. The young man’s 20 hours from graduating — or less. He’s gonna have an opportunity to play basketball and do something for himself, his family, his son that he just had. The hell with everything else. That’s what I promised him. I couldn’t promise him a pro career. I promised him that I’d take that thousand-mile walk with him, but he had to promise to take that step every day with me, and he did it. He stayed true to his word, and I tried to stay true to mine.”
Another underlying subtext to all of this centers around Hampton’s move to the Big South from the MEAC. The move was a relatively polarizing one at the time, considering Hampton’s status as an elite HBCU, and the MEAC’s status of being just one of two remaining all-HBCU conferences at the Division I level. Joyner addressed that move in his remarks Sunday.
“I probably owe (Marrow) more than he owes me. A lot of people don’t understand the pressure that’s on his back, and all of our backs,” Joyner said. “Leaving the MEAC, that was a great conference, and I’m HBCU, born and bred. I went to Johnson C. Smith University. I got my first degree from there. I love Hampton enough that I got my graduate degree from there.
“The pressure that we were under that last year there, and the pressure that we moved into trying to get to this point here, and some of the things that we heard … The pressure was on us to produce every day, and I, in turn, put that pressure on them. (Marrow) brought me to a championship, to a second championship. We’ve played in three straight postseasons with this young man. Maybe another, we don’t know.
“At the end of the day, I’m proud of the product that he’s become. I’m proud that I was able to give him an opportunity to do the things that he’s done. You say one of the most decorated careers at Hampton University, I don’t know that you’ve read the stats. He’s one of the most decorated players in college basketball. I can run them off to you. I was here with him to help give that opportunity, and that was a blessing. As (forward) Ben (Stanley) says, ‘To God be the glory’ for that. I’m so happy for him now.
“Where some people say, ‘What’s next?’ and ‘What is he gonna do next?’, I was there to help him make sure that he could provide a life for himself, his son, and his family after this, and he’s gonna do that.”
Marrow finishes his career — with the possibility of postseason play still out there — with a Virginia Division I record of 2,680 points. To put it another way:
Kelsey also offered his thoughts on Marrow after Sunday’s game, which largely echoed those he offered after Hampton’s 87-81 win at Winthrop on February 22.
“I just respect him. I think there’s mutual respect. He’s a nasty competitor. He really is, man. He’s a terrific player. I just have so much respect for him. We’ve talked through the years.
“He’s not afraid every once in a while to wink at me or give me something when something’s happening in the game. That’s gamesmanship. I don’t have a problem with that. He’s just the ultimate competitor, and he’s a terrific, terrific basketball player. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Those numbers on the scoreboard gave Winthrop its second Big South title in the last four seasons, and another trip to the NCAA tournament. Hale dribbled out the final seconds, exhorted the crowd, then fired the ball toward the sky as a mob of fans streamed onto the court. It almost seemed as if it were scripted.
Now, Winthrop awaits its postseason assignment, where it will be greeted by the combination of cold gyms, blue carpets, and lanyards, as Kelsey often describes the scene. As for Hampton, the Pirates will be back. Marrow is gone, as are Greg Heckstall and Dondre Griffin. Ben Stanley returns, though, as does Davion Warren, who came on late for Hampton.
The All-Tournament Team consisted of these five stars:
Carlik Jones (Radford; also Player of the Year in the Big South)
With that, another Big South season comes to a close. Numerous clubs still have postseason opportunities, and we’ll see where they end up. We’ll have the stories.
Until those games take place, we leave you with this: