PEMBROKE — Despite going 10 minutes of the first half without a made shot from the floor, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team relied on the play of its defense that has carried it over the last four games and produced four wins.
With visiting Augusta bringing the best shooting offense in the Peach Belt Conference, the Braves’ defense was the difference in the meeting of two of the top three teams in the league. The Jaguars shot 34 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 14 times leading to 13 UNCP points in the Braves’ 68-62 win on Wednesday inside the English Jones Center, their fifth straight win after losing to Columbus State in December.
“They are good defensively and made us work for it. I didn’t realized it was a stretch like that,” UNCP coach Ben Miller said. “Fortunately, our defense was good enough to keep us close.”
The win keeps the Braves in a tie with Clayton State atop the conference standings.
UNCP (10-3, 6-1 PBC) went more than 10 minutes in the first half without a field goal — missing 12 straight attempts — after a Brandon Watts 3-pointer put it up 18-7 at the 12:33 mark. Augusta (7-6, 4-3 PBC) charged back during that span to take a 30-27 lead into the half, behind 10 points from junior forward Deane Williams.
“You don’t realized you’re 1-for-16 when you’re getting stops and it’s a 3-point game,” Watts said. “The key to every game is to hold teams to under 40 percent (shooting) because we know we are capable of that.”
The Braves closed the half hitting one of their final 16 field goal attempts, a Nigel Grant 3-pointer from the right wing with less than two minutes left before halftime.
The second half was when Watts and the young backcourt of the Braves hung tight with the Jaguars before a late scoring spurt. One of the young guards, Lumberton native David Strother, was one of three freshmen that were getting their first taste of high-level Peach Belt Conference action, but made his mark with his play in the second half.
“When we went out after halftime (assistant coach Tony Jones) told me that ‘you ain’t a freshman no more,’” Strother said after finishing with 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists. “I just have got to step up more.”
In the second half, especially in the closing moments, was when Strother and sophomore guard Micah Kinsey flourished. The backcourt duo combined for 17 points and four assists in the final half, and both had plays late to secure the lead for the Braves.
“They’re getting better everyday, and the maturity level for some of these guys is off the charts,” Miller said of his young guards. “They are going to get more comfortable and confident, like David getting us into the offense to run set plays.”
Strother hit 6-of-7 free throws in the final five minutes as both teams swapped out the lead. During that same time frame, Kinsey had six points, with his one-handed dunk on a run out with 12 seconds left capping off the game for UNCP by giving it a late 6-point lead.
“I wanted to take them shots,” Strother said. “I felt like I could make them.”
Watts finished with a game and season-high 24 points and started the game off hot, hitting his first four shots from the field to open the game to give the Braves an early lead with his 10 points. He shot 4-for-5 from behind the arc in the game.
“I kind of did bad in everything else so I’m glad I shot the ball well,” he said with a laugh.
Augusta played without its leading scorer, senior Tamyrik Fields, who averaged 16 points per game for the Jaguars as he was out for personal reasons. The scoring load was picked up by Williams with 18 points, Kyle Doyle with 15 points and Aaron Byrd with 11 points on a trio of 3-pointers. Augusta also out-rebounded the Braves 50-37, and nearly doubled up the Braves on the offensive glass, 24-13.
Grant added 11 points and 12 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season.
UNCP opens up a three-game road trip at Columbus State on Saturday, while Augusta heads to North Georgia.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.