PEMBROKE — Jamal Bryant gave himself a nickname during his freshman year as a basketball player for Wilson High School in Florence, S.C.
On Saturday night against Catawba College, in the second game of his rookie campaign with the UNCP men’s basketball team, Bryant got to see “a whole troop” of his supporters donning that nickname on t-shirts inside the English E. Jones Center.
“I had like a breakout game my freshman year,” Bryant recalled. “When I went home, I’m a (Los Angeles) Lakers fan so you know Kobe’s dad, Joe ‘Jellybean’ Bryant, I was like, ‘Dad, I’m like Jellybean.’ He was like, ‘OK, but you got to play like it.’”
“Jellybean” didn’t disappoint his supporters in the Braves’ 91-67 win over the Indians, scoring 14 points off the bench for a UNCP squad that never trailed on the night.
“It made me feel special. It got to my soft spot,” Bryant said of the support. “I just want to contribute as quick as I can and be a good asset to the team.”
The freshmen trio of Bryant, Tyrell Kirk and David Strother combined for 39 points off the bench for the Braves, who outscored Catawba 52-34 in the second half.
Kirk, a Whiteville native, finished with nine points, eight rebounds and three assists. Strother, a Lumberton native, logged 16 points, including a trio of 3-pointers and five free throws.
“You saw flashes of it, even in the exhibition games, where it started to come together (for the freshmen),” UNCP coach Ben Miller said. “I think it’s really hard when you’re trying to learn the offense, learn the defense.
“I think when these guys relax and start to feel more comfortable, we’ll start to see more outings like you did (against Catawba).”
Kirk scored eight of his nine points in the first half to give the Braves some early momentum. He knocked down a pair of 3-pointers and a mid-range jumper to spark the squad. Bryant followed with an alley-oop to Akia Pruitt to give the Braves a 29-16 lead, capping a 9-0 spurt.
UNCP carried a 39-33 lead into the half.
“It felt good,” Kirk said. “They (the coaches) trusted me and Jamal to go out there and play our game.”
The Braves had five players notch double-figure scoring performances, with Pruitt and Nigel Grant logging double-doubles. Grant finished with a team-high 18 points and 10 rebounds. Pruitt added 11 points and 10 boards. James Murray-Boyles scored 10 points.
UNCP never trailed, dominating in nearly every category. The Braves pulled down 50 rebounds for a plus-19 advantage on the glass and scored 25 points off Catawba’s 20 turnovers. UNCP also dished out 21 assists.
“We did some good things as a team. A lot of guys stepped up,” Miller said. “We’ve got a very unselfish team and when they share the ball like that it’s fun to watch. … I hope we’re a team that can feed off of our defense.”
The Braves will be back in action on Wednesday in a 7 p.m. game at Wingate, which participated in the NCAA Tournament last season.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.