Ark-Pine Bluff beats Winthrop in NCAA opener
DAYTON: When it mattered most, Arkansas-Pine Bluff turned into kings of the road.
Losers of their first 11 games — all on the road — the Golden Lions turned their first trip to the NCAA tournament into one worth the extra packing. Allen Smith made clutch 3-pointers on a night when shots wouldn't go down easily, setting up a 61-44 victory over Winthrop in the opening game on Tuesday night.
The Golden Lions (18-15) will play Duke, the No. 1 seed in the South Regional, on Friday in Jacksonville, Fla.
"It seems like we play better on the road than we do at home because we're so used to being on the road," said center Lebaron Weathers said.
He wouldn't have said that a few months ago.
The Golden Lions spent the first two months playing some of the country's best teams on the road, going everywhere and getting nowhere. They lost at Colorado, Denver, Texas-El Paso, Akron, Arizona State, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Missouri, Kansas State and Oregon, leaving them 0-11 heading into 2010.
Players cranked up their iPods and let their music soothe them during 13-hour bus rides across the heartland in November and December, ones that bonded them for much better things in March.
"We think it brought them together," coach George Ivory said. "You've got to stay together on the road. You get to know each other better. You go through some bumps and bruises on the road, playing in some pretty tough places."
The basketball equivalent of boot camp hardened them for a Southwestern Athletic Conference season that would be kinder. Their next destination is with history — a chance to pull off the unprecedented first-round upset of a No. 1 team.
Ivory knows a little bit about that. He was a star at Mississippi Valley State, which kept up with No. 1 Duke in 1986 before falling 85-78.
"You see Duke a lot on TV," Ivory said. "You see them so much, it's kind of like you just know what they're going to do."
The fast exit was familiar for Winthrop (19-14), which has made the tournament nine times in the last 12 years but has only one victory in all those tries.
Winthrop got the type of game it wanted, but couldn't make a shot as another tournament slipped away. Charles Corbin scored 13 points for the Eagles, who shot 29 percent from the field and went 2 of 21 behind the 3-point arc.
"We picked a bad time to have a bad game," coach Randy Peele said. "We played really frustrated. I hadn't seen that from us for a while."
Neither team shoots particularly well — no player averages more than 10 points for either one. Instead, they win with tight defense and rebounding. These mirror-image teams settled in to slog one out on the NCAA's big stage.
Smith put the game in the Golden Lions' hands by hitting a pair of 3s that helped Pine Bluff pull ahead 37-31 in the second half. Smith held up his right hand in the "OK" sign — three fingers extended — after connecting from the left corner and the top of the key.
Soon, the lead was up to 14 points and the Golden Lions knew they'd be headed for at least one more faraway place to play a top team.
This time, they're doing it with a smile.
"It just means a lot," Smith said. "It feels great."