PEMBROKE — Junior defensive end Tyler Hinton missed practice on Thursday, but his mind and phone was focused on what was going on at football practice and his team while he was away mourning the loss of his grandmother.
“I was thinking about my teammates all day. I was texting my teammates asking how was practice and was just keeping up with them,” he said. “I was playing in the memory of my grandmother. I was just going out there trying as hard as I can.”
Hinton has been the leading force on The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team’s defensive line this season, and as a captain he felt out of place knowing his team was preparing to take on Lenoir-Rhyne for one day without him. On Saturday, he was back and let his presence be known for the homecoming matchup.
With a strip sack in the waning moments against the Bears, Hinton not only sealed a 14-10 win for the Braves at home, but also etched his name in the school’s record book for most career sacks, passing DeVante Bush with 20 career sacks.
“It’s amazing. It was just great to end the game that way, a hard-fought game with our defense and our offense. It was just a hard-fought game,” Hinton said. “Being a captain and a leader, I felt like my teammates needed me to see that I had that positive energy.”
After suffering through five straight losses, UNCP (2-6) returned home for the last time this season after spending the last month away on the road to pick up a second win on the season, and avoid becoming the first team in program history to go winless at home.
“I thought in the second half we were able to fight from behind and a little adversity came our way and we showed a lot of great energy as a team,” UNCP coach Shane Richardson said. “He (Hinton) came back inspired and fired up. Honestly, the practice he missed, he is a captain of ours, we didn’t have the energy or the spunk that we should’ve had and you could tell his presence was not there. He came back on Saturday here and was ready to go.”
It took the defense led by Hinton with 1 1/2 sacks to hold off Lenoir-Rhyne (3-5) in the second half to buy time for a comeback victory.
After the Braves took a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter, the offense had seven drives end empty-handed over the next 19 minutes of game time. There were back-to-back drives that ended with turnovers in the second quarter, and then five drives that resulted in punts, seeming to revert back to the operation of the offense in the previous two home losses.
The defense did what it could during that stretch, holding the Bears to 97 yards combined on the next eight drives. One touchdown from Lenoir-Rhyne came during that spell as Nelson Brown scored from two yards out midway through the third quarter to put it up 10-7 on UNCP.
“I think our defense played outstanding. If you look at the third downs, Lenoir’s offense was only 2-of-14 on third down so our defense held them. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Richardson said. “When you are able to stop drives and get off the field and get the ball back continually to the offense, you give yourself a chance to win.”
Brown came into the game averaging over 112 rushing yards per game. He finished with 59 against the UNCP defense.
“We just wanted to have everybody do their job and stay in their gap to dominate the line of scrimmage,” Hinton said.
With all the patience from the defense, the offense for the Braves came through with 11 minutes to go. Sophomore running back Miles Grant found the end zone, and scored the go-ahead touchdown, from 40-yards out to cap off a five-play, 68-yard drive.
Grant tallied 100 yards rushing to lead his team in that category.
“Me and JoJo Spann had a little conversation before the play. He was like, ‘Man, we need something big,’ and I just thought of last year when Ronton(io Stanley) played and I wanted to make something for the seniors,” Grant said. “That’s really football, going up and down, and the main ones stick it out. The least mistakes win the games.”
Being both the homecoming and senior day contest for the Braves, the win was momentous for a team that has one other win on the year, in Week 2 against Elizabeth City State.
Spann, one of the seven seniors being honored before the game, led all receivers with 93 yards receiving and one touchdown coming in the first quarter on a wide receiver pass from fellow senior E.J. Williams for a 35-yard reception.
“It sucks how our record is, but this win kind of put all that aside,” Spann said. “Winning this game on homecoming, senior night and everything. It was just a great feeling.”
UNCP travels to Mars Hill next weekend, while Lenoir-Rhyne hosts Carson-Newman.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.