Battle for first.
“Heck, if you’re a basketball fan, it doesn’t get much better than this,” UNCP coach Ben Miller said. “You’ve got two talented Peach Belt teams going at it in what should be a very exciting game.”
Miller didn’t back down before practice Tuesday in preparation for tonight’s game with USC Aiken, a matchup that decides the front-runner in the Peach Belt’s East Division. UNCP's leader who normally buys stock in the “they all count the same” adage, knows this one is more important than others.
“All of our guys understand the significance and what’s at stake,” he said. “It’s exciting for our fans, our players and our coaches. You know, growing up, all the work and effort these guys have put in is really starting to pay off and that’s rewarding. The players’ mental toughness has prepared them for this.”
Fresh off Saturday’s road win at North Georgia that was defined by stops down the stretch, UNCP (11-5, 5-1) turned to the Pacers (12-2, 6-0) who have had the Braves’ number in recent years. From January 2007 to February 2010, the Pacers reeled off seven straight wins over the Braves by an average of 18.4 points per game.
USC Aiken’s fortunes reversed last season despite entering the year as Division II’s top-ranked team. The Pacers dropped 2-of-3 games against the Braves including a two-point home loss in the fist-round of the conference tournament that squashed USC Aiken’s bubble for an at-large NCAA bid and effectively made UNCP more attractive to the selection committee.
The majority of last year’s production is gone for the 19th-ranked Pacers but they are still the league’s last remaining unbeaten. USC Aiken has won four straight games with a different leading scorer in each and Pacers guard Ronald Zimmerman leads the PBC in 3-point shooting at 48 percent.
“I’ve always been impressed with their program and their coaching staff,” Miller said. “They’re kind of us like us with good chemistry and balanced scoring … and they’ll get out and guard you.”
USC Aiken’s defense is one of the league’s stingiest in 3-pointers allowed, blocked shots and turnovers forced. In Monday’s blowout win over Augusta State, the Pacers ran off 27 points off turnovers and had 36 points from their bench. Against one of Division II’s most balanced teams, Miller says the Braves must take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
“Games in this conference often come down to a single possession,” Miller said. “I think our crowd will show up and really help us out.”
Miller is openly campaigning for a good turnout and hopes to exceed this season’s capacity crowd of 2,538 that watched UNCP slip past rival Fayetteville St. on Nov. 29. The Braves are 7-3 at home this season, an underlying stat for UNCP fans since the Pacers have suffered both of their losses away from Aiken’s Convocation Center.
“I don’t think our students realize the amount of energy they bring to the gym,” Miller said. “When they get behind our guys on defense, it creates a great situation and they can really have an impact on the game. I’ve been pleased with the crowds we’ve had so far.”
After tonight’s game the Braves host Georgia College Saturday before departing on a four-game road trip that includes stops at Augusta State and Columbus State next week.
“We’ve got to stay hungry,” Miller said. “Win, lose, whatever, we’ve got to stay hungry.”
Reach Staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at firstname.lastname@example.org