ROCK HILL, S.C. -- Winthrop's almost-annual success in the Big South Conference championship has only increased expectations for the Eagles and coach Gregg Marshall.
With his team feeling the most pressure that Marshall could remember, the Eagles beat VMI 84-81 in the tournament final Saturday to clinch their seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament in Marshall's nine years.
Some believed Winthrop (28-4) would have made the tournament with an at-large bid even with a loss. Marshall wasn't willing to take that chance, even with his team on an 18-game winning streak and the cusp of The Associated Press Top 25.
"It seems like every game we've had to win," Marshall said.
The top-seeded Eagles got all they could handle from sixth-seeded VMI, which had already knocked off the second and third seeds with a freewheeling, 3-point-shooting offense and a zone defense that dared its opponents to shoot from outside.
The Keydets (14-19) even had a chance to tie it, but Reggie Williams missed a 30-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"Basically, we made just one more basket," said Marshall, the net tucked in the pocket of his tailored suit like a handkerchief.
The win was extra sweet for Marshall, who accepted the coaching job at College of Charleston to chants of "Final Four!" last summer, then tearfully returned to the Eagles a day later. The change of heart was due in large part to wanting to coach this team, which he said is his best in his tenure at the school.
This team has proven that, becoming the first Big South team to go undefeated in conference play. The Eagles have wins at Mississippi State, Missouri State and Old Dominion. Their only losses came on the road, at Wisconsin in overtime, Texas A&M, North Carolina and Maryland.
When asked what seed he thinks the Eagles deserve, Marshall replied: "Five." Nearly everyone in the room laughed. Marshall didn't.
His reasoning? All four of Winthrop's losses camp to teams in the top 14 in the RPI. Later when someone suggested the Eagles might earn a No. 10 seed, he bristled.
"You're talking about us being a 10?" Marshall said. "Get me the 36 teams that are better than us in the country."
The Keydets were nearly better Saturday. After beating VMI in the first meeting at home by 32, the Eagles couldn't pull away in this one. They never led by more than nine points as the Keydets changed tactics, moving away somewhat from the always-shoot, always-press offense that had VMI leading the country averaging just under 103 points a game.
When VMI got close late, Taj McCullough was there to put the Eagles back up. With the game tied at 61, McCullough sank two free throws. He also broke the last tie at 66 with a 3-pointer.
The Eagles had a shot-clock violation on their next possession, setting up the final miss.
VMI coach Duggar Baucom said he wasn't disappointed in his team.
"We made this championship game with seven scholarship players, three walk-ons, a football player and a manager," Baucom said.
The Eagles held Williams, the nation's top scorer, to 13 points, nearly 16 under his average. Travis Holmes led VMI with 29 points, going 6-of-9 on 3-pointers.
The Keydets shot 12-for-34 from behind the arc. They came in averaging 42 3-point attempts a game.
With all of their success, the one thing the Eagles have yet to do is win an NCAA Tournament game. Marshall said he doesn't mind people talking about how Winthrop comes close -- like last year's two-point loss to No. 2 seed Tennessee or a 10-point loss in 2005 to Gonzaga.
"We're used to that," Marshall said. "Would you want it any other way?"
They are getting so used to titles at Winthrop that athletic spokesman Jack Frost invited fans and reporters to the Eagles "annual selection Sunday party" next week.