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ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — Once a March regular, Winthrop is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
Point guard Keon Johnson set the tone before and during the Eagles' 76-59 win over Campbell on their home floor in Sunday's Big South Conference Tournament final.
Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey was about to address his team in the locker room prior to tip-off when Johnson spoke up. He had something to say.
"Keon's a man of very, very few words," Kelsey said. "He's been that way since he got here. When he talks, the room stands still, and guys lean forward. I didn't have to say another word."
Johnson talked to his teammates about battling for each other, then went out and scored 26 points. After two straight 31-point games, the 5-foot-7 Johnson won the MVP award for the tournament. The senior opened the second half with back-to-back 3s, and scored 15 of Winthrop's first 19 points in the second half.
Afterward, when he snipped his share of the net, he gently waved toward the cheering student section.
"It was just special," Johnson said. "It's the last time I'll be here with a Winthrop uniform on and just taking down our nets. No one's going to use that net again."
The Eagles (26-6) scored on the first possession of the game and never trailed. Winthrop snapped its streak of three straight losses in the conference final.
"We've gotten really close the last three years, and I've been in some really lonely locker rooms afterwards talking to some distraught young men," Kelsey said. "You sit in that empty room, and you realize how close you were and you know how hard it is to get back there. There's no guarantees. So to (win) was special."
Winthrop went to the NCAA Tournament in nine seasons from 1999-2010. The Eagles' lone win came in 2007 against Notre Dame.
"Because there's all those banners, there's a lot of pressure, and we didn't talk about the pressure," Kelsey said. "I didn't, and they didn't, but it was there. It was real."
Xavier Cooks had 17 points and 14 rebounds for Winthrop and Rod Perkins scored all 15 of his points in the first half.
Chris Clemons, who scored 51 points Thursday for Campbell (17-17) in a quarterfinal win over second-seeded UNC Asheville and got 33 in the semifinals against Radford, had 29. The 5-9 sophomore scored 16 straight points for the seventh-seeded Camels in the second half, but missed 11 of his first 13 shots and finished 9-of-27 from the floor.
"I don't think I played as good as I hoped to play," Clemons said. "I didn't shoot well, personally."
Campbell's only appearance in the NCAA Tournament came in 1992, when it lost to eventual champion Duke.
The Eagles took a quick 12-2 lead as Campbell missed seven of its first eight shots. The Camels rallied to tie it at 21, but Winthrop responded with a 9-0 run.
Once Johnson hit his first 3 of the second half, the Eagles led by double digits the rest of the way.
Winthrop lost to Coastal Carolina in the 2014 and 2015 finals and UNC Asheville last season. Now the Eagles are tournament bound once again.
"It's the greatest spectacle in American sports," Kelsey said. "I'm just so excited our guys get to experience that."
Winthrop: This is the Eagles' first NCAA appearance under fifth-year coach Kelsey. ... The Eagles are now 6-0 in Big South finals as the top seed.
Winthrop awaits seeding for the NCAA Tournament. The 68-team bracket will be revealed Sunday, March 12.
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