ASHEVILLE, N.C. (www.BigSouthSports.com) - D.J. Covington matched his season-high with 16 points and seventh-seeded VMI earned a trip to the Advance Auto Parts Big South Championship game with a 75-55 victory over Winthrop Thursday night at Kimmel Arena.
The Keydets (17-15), who knocked off second-seeded Coastal Carolina 85-68 in Wednesday's quarterfinal round, will meet either top-seeded UNC Asheville (22-9) or fourth seed Charleston Southern (19-11) in Saturday's final, which will start at 12:00pm on ESPN2.
Sixth seed Winthrop (12-20), which upset third-seeded Campbell 71-55 Wednesday, could not overcome a slow start and suffered the program's first 20-loss season since 1997-98.
VMI jumped to a 12-2 lead and never trailed. The Keydets shot 53 percent (25-47) from the floor while Winthrop made only 20-of-61 (.328) shots.
A sophomore forward from Virginia Beach, Covington did not miss a shot on the night, going 6-of-6 from the floor and 4-of-4 from the stripe. He blocked 4 shots in 20 minutes of action before fouling out with 3:25 to play.
Stan Okoye added 13 points and 10 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the year and Ron Burks chipped in 11 points for VMI, which finished the game with a 13-2 edge in points off turnovers.
Winthrop senior guards Andre Jones and Reggie Middleton each scored 14 points, but combined to shoot only 10-of-29 from the field, 2-of-10 from 3-point distance. Middleton hit five threes in a 25-point effort vs. Campbell Wednesday, but finished 6-of-18 from the floor, 2-of-7 beyond the arc against VMI.
Middleton's drive to the bucket cut VMI's lead to 46-38 with 14:25 remaining - the first time the Eagles trimmed the gap to single digits since the 12:41 mark of the first half (15-8).
However, Jones picked up his fourth personal foul just 22 seconds later and the Keydets answered with a 16-5 rally to build a 19-point advantage (62-43) on Rodney Glasgow's layup in transition with 6:29 to go. VMI led by as many as 24 down the stretch.
Winthrop finished with a 42-29 advantage on the glass, but shot only 30 percent in the final period. George Valentine pulled down a team-leading nine rebounds, seven on the offensive end, where the Eagles collected 15 second-chance points.
The Keydets became the first seventh-seeded team to reach the Big South final since Charleston Southern accomplished the feat in 2005. The title game berth is VMI's fourth overall and first since 2009.
VMI made eight of its first 11 field goals and took a 20-8 lead on Okoye's lay-up with 12:07 left in the opening half. Winthrop committed six turnovers before the second media timeout, including four during its first seven possessions.
The Keydets led by as many as 14 in the opening period, but Gideon Gamble's jumper from the left baseline just before the horn trimmed the margin to 39-29 at the half.
VMI made 14 of its first 22 shots and connected on 56 percent (14-25) in the opening period, including 4-of-9 threes, plus 7-9 from the stripe.
Winthrop shot 36 percent (10-38) from the floor, but missed all five threes, and hit 9-of-14 free throws before the break.
VMI Head Coach Duggar Baucom
"I got a text from (Marquette coach) Buzz Williams this morning that said 'Win every 4 minutes.' That means to every media timeout. I think we added at every one of them ... We carried our game plan out to a 'T' ... We've slowed down a little bit from where we used to be, we've toned down our defensive pressure somewhat. But we think we still play pretty fast offensively
"Getting Covington and Glasgow back has changed a lot for us. It was just a bump in the road for us, no bigger, no smaller ... Having DJ means Stan (Okoye) doesn't have to do it all inside. He flirted with one (double-double) yesterday, and got one tonight. He made some timely plays tonight when we needed them"
Winthrop Head Coach Randy Peele
"We just didn't play very well tonight. We didn't make shots. ... VMI is a team that gets energy the more they win, which they're doing. ... They slow-doubled Reggie (Middleton) and took the ball out of his hands. That made it 5-on-4, but we didn't really attack ... You can't get in a 3-point shootout with VMI. Sometimes you have to pass up a three to get a better shot. We just got frustrated."
"Covington hurt us tonight. The first time we played, (Keith) Gabriel had 33. We did a good job shutting him down, but Covington made up for it."