Sports

On Your Mark: Coastal Carolina, Winthrop closing book on heated hardwood rivalry

Coastal Carolina’s Jaylen Shaw (front) battles Winthrop’s Jared Scott (right) for a loose ball during the teams’ meeting in January.
Coastal Carolina’s Jaylen Shaw (front) battles Winthrop’s Jared Scott (right) for a loose ball during the teams’ meeting in January. jlee@thesunnews.com

Some things are certain.

Of course, death and taxes are mainstays that will be part of our lives, like it or not. In recent years, however, another has been added to that category, but with much less drastic consequences.

For fans of Big South Conference basketball, the notion that drama accompanies the end of the men’s hoops season has become somewhat of a birthright, the regular-season race coming down to the final games, halves and often minutes.

This season is shaping up to be no different, with the top seven teams separated by no more than three games in the loss column.

Looking to defend its status as flag bearer of the Big South, Coastal Carolina (16-9, 10-5 Big South) again finds itself in the thick of the title race, winning eight of its last nine games to pull within a half-game of the league lead.

Certainly, a regular-season title pales in comparison to a team’s ability to come up with three to four wins in the Big South Conference Tournament, and the NCAA tournament berth that comes with it. But make no bones about it, being able to hang a banner in the rafters as the conference’s regular-season champion is definitely a feather in any coach’s hat.

For the Chanticleers to get there, the season boils down to three games – the first of them possibly the toughest and most emotional of the bunch.

Since 2000, no program in the Big South has proven more dominant than Winthrop, winning eight conference titles during the stretch. The Eagles also were the first conference team to earn a victory in the NCAA tournament’s round of 64, beating Notre Dame by a score of 74-64 in 2007.

More recently, however, Coastal Carolina has put its stamp on the league, winning the last two league titles. In the process, the Chanticleers have also done their part to be a thorn in Winthrop’s side, defeating their rivals in each of the past two Big South tournament title games.

Coastal Carolina and Winthrop will meet Thursday night in Rock Hill, each hoping to draw ever closer to the coveted spot atop the league table.

Adding to the intrigue of the matchup, though, is the notion this could be the final chapter in one of the Big South’s most storied hardwood rivalries.

With most of the Chanticleers’ athletic programs moving to the Sun Belt Conference in the 2016-17 academic year, the school is shedding its small school reputation for a date with the big boys.

It’s going to be tough to create a rival as natural as the Eagles, a single look at the series history revealing how close the two teams have played each other through the years. Including Coastal Carolina’s 82-63 win over Winthrop in January, the Chanticleers hold a slim 42-39 advantage.

Including the past two Big South title games, there have been a number of memorable games between the teams through the years. With as much is at stake for both the Chanticleers and Winthrop, one should expect nothing less than a classic Wednesday night at the Winthrop Coliseum.

Tip-off is at 7 p.m., with live coverage of the game courtesy of 100.3 The Team. The game also can be viewed online by way of the the Big South Network.

Start your engines …

The green flag on another NASCAR season drops Sunday on the Daytona 500.

Oddly, this year’s edition will not feature household names such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart – one now serving as a member of the media, the other recovering from a severe back injury sustained recently in an ATV accident, respectively.

Nevertheless, a host of familiar names will again be in the field, led by reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Busch, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the young gun Joey Logano.

None of them will be on the pole for the race though, as 20-year-old Chase Elliott earned the position during Sunday’s knockout qualifying session. As a result, the rookie became the youngest pole winner in the race’s history.

Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr., Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. round out the top five.

The Daytona 500 will air Sunday at 1 p.m. on FOX.

Of note

“Frantic February” – also known as the S.C. high school basketball playoffs – tips off Monday. Sixteen local teams qualified for their respective tournaments, with six of them hosting playoff games (Christian Academy of Myrtle Beach’s SCISA AA postseason slate has yet to be announced). For a full rundown of the playoff schedule, visit MyrtleBeachOnline.com. … The return of baseball is imminent, as the pitchers and catchers report to spring training sites in Arizona and Florida. Full squad workouts will commence next week. … The best rivalry in college basketball takes center stage Wednesday night when Duke visits North Carolina. Tip off is at 9 p.m.

Joe L. Hughes II: 843-444-1702, @thejournalist44

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