PEMBROKE — Before every game, Micah Kinsey talks to himself.
“I tell myself (to get) steals,” said Kinsey, a freshman guard for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team, “because I know I can do it.”
The Atlanta native never has a particular number in mind, he says, as long as “it’s high.”
On Wednesday, Kinsey appeared to get through to himself, giving the Braves a much-needed defensive spark with a game-high four steals in an 82-62 win over Flagler.
“Micah brought some great energy off the bench and he’s just going to keep getting better and better,” UNCP coach Ben Miller said. “He might have been first or second in the state of Georgia in steals in high school. The adjustment for him is knowing when he has to contain.
“He’s really adjusting and learning. … He’s an exciting player that’s for sure.”
Checking in at the 16:32 mark in the second half with UNCP (15-7, 8-5 PBC) leading 40-38, Kinsey scored or assisted on the next five baskets for the Braves, capping the spurt with a steal and behind-the-back pass to Carson Mounce for a dunk to give UNCP a 54-45 advantage with 11:20 left to play.
The Braves outscored Flagler (9-11, 3-10) 51-28 in the second frame, scoring 20 points off 14 turnovers and holding the Saints to 25.7 percent shooting.
The win snapped a three-game losing skid in which UNCP gave up an average of 89 points per game. Kinsey credited the Braves’ ability to prevent penetration as the key to Wednesday’s success against the Saints.
“We stayed in front of the ball like we should,” said Kinsey, who finished with seven points, six assists and five rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench. “We helped a lot better in the second half and I think that’s what ultimately helped us.”
With limited practice time, the Braves have turned to film study as motivation to get better defensively. After Monday’s 96-92 loss at Francis Marion, Miller made sure the Braves knew what had been going wrong during the team’s recent skid.
“We watched a lot of film. On Tuesday morning, we got up early and watched a good part of the first half (against Francis Marion) and just how lethargic we were defensively,” Miller said.
“I think it really hit home when the guys saw it. I was really proud of how they bounced back and took responsibility for the things you control. Shots may not always fall, but if you play defense and rebound, you’re going to be in most games. Scoring hasn’t been the issue; it’s been about getting stops.”
Down one at the break, UNCP connected on 7-of-9 shots over a four-minute stretch midway through the second half to open up a 15-point lead and then cruised the rest of the way. The Saints climbed to within 11 points at the 4:27 mark, but the Braves answered with an 11-2 run to pad their advantage out to 20 points, 80-60, three minutes later.
“Overall, for 40 minutes, that’s one of the best defensive efforts we’ve had in a long time,” Miller said. “In this league, you have to put together a solid 40 minutes if you want to win.”
Freshman Akia Pruitt logged a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds to lead four Braves in double figures. Brandon Watts added 14 points and eight boards, with Nigel Grant tallying 12 points and James Murray-Boyles contributing 10 off the bench.
Jeffercy Jean tallied 16 points to lead Flagler, who were outrebounded by a 56-37 margin, including a 28-17 disparity on the offensive boards. Vaughn McCall added 14 points for the visitors.
After helping his team match its best defensive performance of the season, Kinsey is hopeful Wednesday night will serve as a turning point for the Braves defensively.
“It gives us a lot of confidence and energy,” he said. “We know we can carry it on.”
UNCP will open up a two-game road trip on Saturday when it heads to PBC East leading Augusta (16-5, 9-4) in the second half of a 1:30 p.m. doubleheader. The Jaguars earned an 80-78 victory in Pembroke earlier this season.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.