PEMBROKE — The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team has had its share of close losses this season, with six defeats being decided by five points or less.
Braves coach Ben Miller looks at the setbacks as a setup for the Braves as the regular season winds down.
“It may have been a blessing in disguise that we didn’t win some of those games,” Miller said. “Sometimes, unfortunately, success isn’t a great teacher. A few painful losses may have helped us and may help us down the stretch.”
It appears the pain is now paying off for the Braves, who claimed a 77-72 overtime victory over USC Aiken on Wednesday night for their third straight win decided by five or fewer points.
“Honestly, some of those early losses that were close, we didn’t deserve to win,” Miller said. “I felt like we got outworked in some key areas — defensive rebounding and things that we can control. Tonight, if we had come up short I wouldn’t have been disappointed with our effort.”
Led by seniors Alex Bradley and Mike Smith, the Braves (18-7, 11-5 PBC) logged one of their best defensive performances of the season, suffocating USC Aiken (16-7, 10-6) to remain tied with Augusta atop the Peach Belt Conference standings with three games left in the regular season.
Smith was one of five Braves to finish in double figures, knocking down four of the team’s five 3-pointers, including the biggest shot of the night with 8.9 seconds left in regulation. With his team trailing 66-63, Smith collected a pass from Bradley on the right wing and drained a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime.
“My teammates gave me energy to knock it down,” said Smith, who finished with 15 points, five rebounds and three steals. “We haven’t just been playing for wins; we’ve been playing to win a championship. In order to do that, you need every bucket and every defensive stop.”
Smith carried the momentum into the overtime period, giving the Braves a 69-66 lead when he knocked down his final 3-pointer of the night. The Pacers rallied to take a 70-69 lead on a layup by Christian Nobles with 2:34 left to play, but UNCP closed the game on an 8-2 run, holding the visitors scoreless until the final two seconds of the game.
“It’s about heart,” said Smith, who scored 10 of his points after halftime.
“All my life, it’s been about working hard. As an individual coming off the bench, I feel like effort and heart come first. If I miss a shot, I know I can get it back on defense because defense wins games and it did tonight. The shot was just a part of that.”
It was a stark contrast to how the Braves have normally beaten opponents this season. As the top scoring team in the league at nearly 86 points per game, UNCP has become accustomed to depending on its offense. On Wednesday, the Braves were forced to flip the switch.
UNCP shot just 34 percent from the field and committed 23 turnovers, but limited the Pacers to 38 percent shooting and forced 25 turnovers. The Braves also finished with eight blocks and 16 steals.
“We talked about that at halftime,” Miller said. “It was probably good for us to be in a game where shots weren’t falling because we’ve been in so many games where it’s like we’re playing H.O.R.S.E. out there. There are going to be games down the stretch where we really have to grind. We’ll find a way if we keep defending, rebounding and attacking. Our guys really stepped up.”
Miller added that Wednesday’s game is also great preparation for, hopefully, postseason play.
“These are the top two scoring teams in the league and both had four games in seven days,” Miller said. “I’m just proud that the guys grinded and found a way. It’s great to come out on the right side. (USC Aiken is) definitely a potential NCAA Tournament team so it’s a big win for us.”
Despite the shooting struggles, the Braves remained relentless in attacking the rim throughout the night, taking advantage of their chances at the free-throw line. UNCP finished 28-of-38 from the charity stripe.
“When you’re so used to playing good on offense, it’s going to be frustrating, but we got our offense started with our defense and we attacked,” said Bradley, who finished with 15 points and a team-best five assists and five steals.
“I think we got dialed in and figured out we needed to play a little bit harder, especially on defense.”
Nigel Grant finished with 13 points and nine boards for the Braves, with Brandon Watts also adding 13 points to go with six rebounds and three blocks. Akia Pruitt tallied 11 points and a team-best four blocks.
In regulation, the Braves went out in front, 62-59, on a jumper by Watts with 2:24 to play, but the Pacers grabbed a 66-63 advantage with 22 ticks left following an old-fashioned 3-point play by Paris Ballinger. Smith attempted an initial 3-pointer with 19 seconds left that went off the side of the rim into the waiting hands of Henry Bolton, but Bolton fumbled the ball out of bounds to give the hosts another chance.
The teams combined for 25 turnovers in the opening half and neither side shot better than 38 percent from the floor. With the scored tied at 19-all, the Pacers closed the half on a 10-5 run, carrying a 29-24 lead into the break after a 3-pointer by Mark Matthews.
Matthews tallied a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds to lead USC Aiken, with Bolton adding 17 points.
The Braves will get a week off from competition before opening up a two-game road trip on Feb. 15 at Armstrong State (10-14, 5-10).
But for now, Miller said he plans on taking it easy on his guys for the next two days.
“Right now they need rest,” he said. “We have a week (until the game at Armstrong State). The guys have earned a break.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.