The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team shook off double-digit exhibition losses to Stanford and San Francisco Friday with a 73-58 victory over Northern State in the season opener for both teams inside the Anaheim Convention Center.
The Braves led the final 38 minutes of the morning game in the Disney West Coast Tip Off Classic, imploring a furious defensive effort that forced the Wolves into 19 turnovers and a 23.1-percent first-half shooting effort from the floor. With the win, UNCP improved to 4-1 in openers under head coach Ben Miller and snapped Northern State's 11-year first game winning streak to start the season.
“I thought our defensive intensity was there throughout the first half and that's what you really like to see,” Miller said in a telephone interview from Anaheim. “We didn't guard as well after halftime but our seniors and some of our young guys really did some good things at the offensive end.”
UNCP (1-0) never looked back after Shahmel Brackett shook the Pembroke bench with two minutes left in the first half with a four-point play. Brackett’s jumper from NBA range plus the foul put his team ahead by 15. Lifted by a teammate from the floor, Brackett shouted and pumped his fists after the first half’s biggest highlight.
The preseason all-conference senior finished with a team-high 17 points and moved into the school’s top 20 list of all-time scorers with 1,222 career points.
"Shahmel's had his best off-season ever and has really taken a leadership role on this team," Miller said. "He's been a leader the last few years on the court but now has a personal responsibility on how well this team performs. He's always been able to score but seems to be more dialed in now in other facets of his game."
The Wolves (0-1) never pulled closer than 13 points with the Braves after UNCP jumped out to a 19-point advantage on Brandon Winford's layup with 16:25 remaining.
Northern State’s length gave the Braves problems early, causing an array of deflections, turnovers and offensive rebounds. UNCP stayed the course without relinquishing the lead however and avoided a damaging run from the opposition, something that happened in both previous contests out west.
"We go from being in a two or three possession game against Stanford to having the doors blown off by San Francisco," Miller said. "It was really a humbling experience the first two days but our guys came back this morning and worked throughout the game on getting better with more solid execution.
"The trip has kind of been like the rollercoaster rides at Disney with lots of ups and downs."
Friday was the first game in three days for the Braves after a mini-break following Monday’s loss in San Francisco. UNCP used the middle of the week for a variety of team-building exercises including lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf Tuesday and multi-nights at Disneyland upon arriving in Anaheim.
Falling 200 feet in an eerie elevator inside the theme park’s Hollywood Tower of Terror was a team favorite.
"We really appreciate the financial efforts of boosters, former players and members of our community for making a trip like this possible," Miller said. "Our guys have really enjoyed being out here, doing a lot of neat things and working on basketball."
The Braves battle Southwest Minnesota State today at 9:15 p.m. before closing out its west coast road swing Sunday against seventh-ranked Winona State. UNCP will head home Sunday from LAX at 2:45 p.m. PST and are expected to arrive in Pembroke early Monday morning.
The three-game tournament for the Braves (1-0) against quality competition should come in handy during the NCAA Tournament selection process in March. Southwest Minnesota State is in the ‘receiving votes’ category of the coaches’ poll while Winona State, a perennial power, is coming off a 25-5 season.
"All these teams in this (tournament) come out of the same league, one of the toughest in Division II," Miller said. "We'll have to rebound and defend a little better to win Saturday and Sunday."