CINCINNATI -- The morning of March 5, during Winthrop’s shoot-around for the Big South Conference men’s basketball championship, coach Pat Kelsey had never seen a more focused Eagles team.
There was a reason for that. Winthrop had advanced to the prior three conference tournament title games and lost each one, its NCAA tournament aspirations snuffed by the final buzzer. The last time an Eagles team clinched an automatic bid -- in 2010 -- was an increasingly distant memory.
Players weren’t about to squander this chance.
Keon Johnson scored a team-best 26 points and Xavier Cooks added 17 as Winthrop defeated Campbell 76-59 and punched one of the first tickets to the Big Dance. Joyful pandemonium ensued among the Eagles and their fans in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
“Winning that game was so important for this team’s legacy and their reputation. They were an unbelievably determined bunch. I could tell after the semifinal,” Kelsey said. “There was a look in their eye, and they weren’t going to be denied.”
Kelsey showed similar grit when he helped Elder High School to the 1993 state basketball championship, when he played college hoops at Wyoming and Xavier, and when he coached on staffs at Wake Forest and Xavier.
His road to the Big South championship started long ago, during one of the toughest times in his life. Kelsey’s mentor, former Xavier and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, died of a heart attack in 2007.
The pain of that loss devastated Kelsey so completely that he left his associate head coaching job with the Musketeers in 2011 and walked away from basketball for a year. He continued working outside the field and devoted time to introspection.
“I found after a year away who I was, and what my calling was in life and the world was: To be a teacher and a coach,” Kelsey said. “I recharged my batteries a bit and I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to become a head coach at a tradition-rich program at Winthrop.”
Kelsey was introduced as Winthrop’s head coach in 2012.
He hired Mark Prosser, Skip Prosser’s son, as an assistant coach and set about impacting the Eagles’ program while doling out “Prosserisms” along the way. Skip Prosser’s colorful quotes were frequent, often funny and immensely unique. They made Prosser a “walking Seinfeld episode,” Kelsey said.
One of Kelsey’s favorites: “Recruiting’s like shaving -- you do it every day or you look like a bum.’”
“He could make a hilarious quick-witted comment about anything that’s happening in a particular situation or instance. I just have a collection of those in my mind because being with him every single day, he was such an interesting and such a funny person,” Kelsey said. “There were so many serious things that he said that applied to teaching and life and basketball as well that were so prophetic.”
Kelsey, his wife Lisa, and their kids Ruthie, Caroline and Johnny live about 500 miles away from Cincinnati but remain tied to the area. Kelsey alone has an enormous extended family here, from parents and siblings to 56 first cousins.
A slew of nieces and nephews made the trip to South Carolina to see the Eagles clinch the conference tournament title. So did Kelsey’s basketball coach at Elder, Joe Schoenfeld, and his family.
Winning three Big South tournament games in four days provided some relief for Kelsey and his players. Their successful season (26-6, 15-3 Big South) was brought to prominence and the program received the recognition it had long sought.
“It’s in those empty locker rooms after those games when you realize what a hard journey that was, and you got that close and came up short, and then you realize how hard the journey is going to be again. There’s no guarantee you can get back there,” Kelsey said.
But the Eagles did return, and now they’re enjoying a week of practice and publicity before the next part of their season begins. Winthrop will host a Selection Show party Sunday to unite fans and the team as CBS reveals the bracket.
While other teams sweat out bids, the Eagles can rest easy knowing they’re in the field of 68.
“It’s kind of cool. In every NCAA tournament show or preview that national radio talk shows do, or ESPN, there’s always that category of Tickets Punched,” Kelsey said. “The fact that our name’s in there for the week every single time is good branding for our university and activation for our athletic department and our basketball program.”