- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

BUIES CREEK, N.C. (AP) - UNC Asheville coach Nick McDevitt stood on the court facing the Bulldogs’ screaming fans with his arms raised when sophomore Ahmad Thomas ran over, embraced him and lifted him off the ground.

As Thomas started to carry his coach around, teammate Sam Hughes interrupted by running over to celebrate the same way.

The next time these Bulldogs have a chance to do that, it will be in their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012.

Freshman Dwayne Sutton had season highs of 25 points and 18 rebounds to help UNC Asheville beat Winthrop 77-68 in Sunday’s championship game of the Big South Tournament, capping an unexpected run to the title after being picked to finish seventh in the preseason poll.

“We tell our team a lot, often, that winning is hard,” said McDevitt, in his third season at his alma mater. “And certainly winning a tournament is really hard because you have to beat three really good teams to do it. … A lot of people put forth a lot of effort to give us this opportunity and to be able to take advantage of that feels really good.”

Sutton was named the tournament’s most valuable player for the fourth-seeded Bulldogs (22-11), who shot 53 percent after in the second half by aggressively attacking the paint to take control.

Hughes added all 15 of his points in a second half that saw UNC Asheville get to the free throw line 28 times and outrebound the Eagles, completing a two-day sweep of the tournament’s top two seeds to claim its fifth championship in its ninth finals appearance.

Jimmy Gavin scored 31 points to lead the second-seeded Eagles (23-9), who had control of the opening half but went cold as the Bulldogs made their move. Winthrop shot just 34 percent after halftime and 35 percent for the game while struggling to keep the Bulldogs out of the lane, with leading scorer Keon Johnson finishing with two points on 1-for-16 shooting.

Winthrop was making a league-record 14th appearance in the final and was seeking its first title since 2010, but instead the Eagles lost in the final for the third straight season.

“At the end of the day, we fell a little short,” coach Pat Kelsey said. “We want to get back here again and try it again.”

The teams split their regular-season meetings, each winning by a point at home - though the Bulldogs’ 85-84 win in January came after rallying from 23 points down in the final 15½ minutes. It was the biggest second-half comeback in program history.

They rallied again from a double-digit deficit, this time 11 points late in the first half, primarily by putting their head down and attacking the lane. Trailing 33-24 at halftime, UNC Asheville went ahead for good on a 3-pointer from leading scorer Dylan Smith with 11:39 left.

“We wanted to attack the bigs,” Sutton said. “We knew (they) were good shot blockers, but we couldn’t be afraid going in there.”

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TIP-INS

UNC ASHEVILLE: Smith hit three second-half 3s after a 1-for-6 shooting performance before halftime. He finished with 11 points. … Kevin Vannatta scored 12 points. … UNC Asheville made 18 of 28 free throws in the second half after going 0 for 1 in the first half.

WINTHROP: Joshua Davenport had 15 points. … Winthrop shot 13 of 17 from the free throw line. … Xavier Cooks had 12 rebounds.

COLD SHOOTING

The Eagles’ biggest struggles came from behind the arc, where they missed 28 of 33 tries. That included Johnson missing all nine of his attempts.

“Could we have made another play here? Could I have taken care of the ball better?” Gavin said. “There’s a lot of things that happen. It’s not on one person. It’s on all of us. We weren’t good enough today.”

UP NEXT

UNC Asheville will play in the NCAA Tournament.

Winthrop will wait to find out if it plays in the postseason.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

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