LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Thanks to wise old veteran center Eric Poiesz, a young and flashy UMBC team is headed to the Big South tournament semifinals tomorrow night against Radford.
The 6-foot-10, 240-pound senior, just 16 days shy of his 24th birthday, was easily the oldest player on the court last night for the Retrievers, but he quickly established a strong inside presence against Winthrop, and UMBC went on to an easy 67-55 victory in the opening round of the tournament at Liberty University.
Third seed UMBC will meet second seed Radford tomorrow night at 8 in the semis. The Retrievers will be out to avenge two regular-season losses to Radford by a total of eight points.
On a team that usually thrives on outside shooting by Rich Giddens and Terence Ward, it was rare to see Poiesz dominate inside with an old-fashioned brand of basketball that overpowered smaller Winthrop (7-20, 4-9).
Poiesz pounded the boards relentlessly, scored on all three shots he took and played as intensely on defense as anyone has all season for the Retrievers (14-13, 7-6).
Poiesz scored eight points and had five rebounds in the first half to spark UMBC to a 31-18 halftime lead. He played only nine minutes in the second half after collecting his third foul with 16: 54 left in the game and finished with 10 points, six rebounds, one block and one steal.
"This is it for Eric," said UMBC coach Tom Sullivan. "He's looking down the barrel of a gun in every game we play. He can't lose or he's finished."
Poiesz smiled a little as Sullivan talked and said: "It's all or nothing for me. If I go down, I won't go down without a fight."
Poiesz started 23 games as a junior last season, but a broken toe early this season and the UMBC youth movement had left the native of Sneek, Holland, virtually a forgotten man until he was inserted into the starting lineup three games ago.
The Retrievers have gone 3-0 with Poiesz starting again, but his biggest test will come against Radford.
"I always prepare myself to play tough defense and I hope I can do it again," said Poiesz.
After Poiesz set the stage in the first half, freshmen Giddens and Ward and sophomore Isaac Green took over in the second half and refused to allow Winthrop a chance to get back into the game.
When Giddens barely beat the shot clock with a jumper that gave the Retrievers a 45-29 lead with 12: 45 left, it was just a matter of time before the season would end for Winthrop.
Giddens wound up with team highs of 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Ward and Green each had 12 points.
"We won this game on defense," said Sullivan. "I knew defense would have to carry us until we could get acclimated offensively to the tournament atmosphere."
The victory assured UMBC of its first non-losing season in nine years and ended a five-game losing streak in Big South tournament play.
Big South men's tournament
At Vines Center, Lynchburg, Va.
Yesterday's first round
UMBC 67, Winthrop 55
Radford 75, Charleston Sou. 68
Liberty 78, Coastal Carolina 70
(1) UNC-Asheville vs. (4) Liberty, 6 p.m.
(2) Radford vs. (3) UMBC, 8 p.m.
Saturday's championship game
Semifinal winners, 2 p.m.
Pub Date: 2/26/98