DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — Arkansas-Pine Bluff finally found a road trip to its liking.
Allen Smith scored 14 points Tuesday night, including a pair of 3-pointers during the Golden Lions’ second-half surge to a 61-44 victory over Winthrop in the NCAA tournament’s opening game.
The Golden Lions (18-15) will play Duke, the No. 1 seed in the South Regional, on Friday in Jacksonville, Fla. — a place they somehow missed during a season-opening jaunt that nearly did them in. They spent the first two months playing some of the country’s best teams on the road, going everywhere and getting nowhere.
They dropped their first 11 games, losing at schools such as Texas-El Paso, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Missouri, Kansas State and Oregon. They cranked up their iPods and let their music soothe them during 13-hour bus rides across the heartland, ones that bonded them.
The basketball equivalent of boot camp hardened them for a Southwestern Athletic Conference season that would be much more kind. By the time their tournament rolled around, the Golden Lions were only one game under .500, nearly out of that 11-loss hole.
They swept through the conference tournament to get to Dayton. Their next destination is with history — a chance to pull off the unprecedented first-round upset of a No. 1 team. Coach George 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.
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.
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.
Midway through the first half, there were as many shots blocked as made. Bored fans started doing the wave. Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Tavaris Washington missed two dunk attempts. Both teams shot under 30 percent from the field in the first half, which ended with the Golden Lions up 24-23.
Ugly? Not to these two.
Corbin was the only shooter with any semblance of a touch, making his three attempts in the first half. His 3-pointer started a 13-2 run that gave Winthrop a 23-17 lead. The Golden Lions caught up by drawing fouls and making free throws.
Smith hit a pair of 3s — a rarity in this game — as Arkansas-Pine Bluff pushed its lead to 38-31. 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.
Things were anything but OK for Winthrop when the Golden Lions’ Terrell Kennedy, a bulky front-line player, swished only his second 3-pointer of the season to beat the shot clock, helping Arkansas-Pine Bluff pull ahead by double digits. Winthrop would never get the lead closer than nine the rest of the way.
Smith put the final touch on it, hitting another 3 and giving his “OK” sign with 16.3 seconds to go.