PEMBROKE — For the first time in five seasons, senior day at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke on Wednesday night will not bid farewell to one of the seasons for the men’s or women’s basketball teams.
Both programs will be taking on postseason play together in the Peach Belt Conference tournament for the first time since the 2011-12 season next week, but seeding — and a conference title for the men — is on the line as UNCP hosts Francis Marion University for senior night with tipoff set for 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Lumbee Guaranty Bank Court.
The men’s team can clinch at least a share of the regular season Peach Belt Conference title with a win. A USC Aiken win over Augusta would give the Braves the outright title and the best record in conference, a feat that has never happened for the program. The Braves tied Augusta for the East division title in 2014-15, but were a game behind Montevallo for the best record in the league that year.
“Fortunately we’re hoping we got some more season left, but obviously we want to send our seniors off the right way on senior night,” UNCP men’s coach Ben Miller said. “We challenge the underclassmen to do everything they can and play as hard as they can for those seniors.”
To go along with the emotions surrounding the regular-season finale, avenging the doubleheader loss at Francis Marion earlier this season has to be on UNCP’s minds, with the men losing 96-92 and the women falling 62-53. Since then, the men (20-7, 13-5 PBC) have reeled off six straight wins and the women (15-10, 10-8 PBC) have went 2-4.
After an embarrassing defensive outing to the Patriots last time around, UNCP’s defense has responded and has become even more dominant on the boards. The Braves’ defense has held three of its last six opponents under 40 percent from the floor, and before the Francis Marion game that mark had only happened twice. The defensive effort has came through in the clutch, an area it failed to do so early in the year.
“Our defense field goal percentage has improved and our rebound margin has improved. We’re probably scoring about at the same clip, and I think all along we thought scoring might be an issue with this team,” Miller said. “In the Flagler game, we had to get stops late to win and we weren’t able to do that earlier and a lot of those games came down to a possession or two.”
The last time the Braves were in this position to claim a share of the conference title was the 2014-15 season and now Miller’s youthful squad will look to repeat that task, even though only two players remain from that team. The players that are still green to the program and college basketball have played beyond their experience this year and will follow the leadership of seniors Alex Bradley, Quamain Rose and Mike Smith in one of the biggest games of the season to date.
“They’re not really freshman anymore,” Miller said. “The new guys have been through some tough battles and have seen some highs and lows, so this time of year they don’t actually feel like freshmen anymore. I think they have great leadership in front of them they can lean on.”
In the initial NCAA regional rankings, which is a strong predictor for the top eight that are selected for the NCAA tournament, the Braves checked in at No. 5, behind Augusta at No. 4. The strong showing at the PBC tournament could put the program in position to secure its fourth NCAA tournament appearance in seven seasons.
Being on the road for four of the last six games, the Lady Braves are happy to return to their friendly confines after closing out a rough road season. Going 4-9 overall and 1-8 in conference on the road, UNCP returns home where it has had the opposite result with a 9-0 mark in the league.
“I think we haven’t been a really good road team for whatever reason,” UNCP women’s coach John Haskins said. “I think lately it’s been injuries and not being able to put the ball in the hole. We’re executing offense, we didn’t have but nine turnovers on Saturday, but we’ve just got to put the basketball in the hole.”
The women’s team is locked into the third seed either way owning the tiebreaker with USC Aiken, but Francis Marion has the upper hand on the Lady Braves for the second seed, even with a win or loss against the Lady Patriots. In the loss on the road to Francis Marion nearly a month ago, the Lady Braves have taken a tumble in the standings after sitting in first place before the recent tough stretch.
With the offensive struggles becoming contagious on the defensive end, the Lady Braves are looking to buck their recent trend. Of the injuries as of late, several have hit some of the five seniors — Jasmine Huntley, Jonissa Monley, Airico Williams, Phonecia Lawson and LaShonda Pitchard — set to be playing in their last home game.
“They’re a good team that’s playing very well, but even more than that it’s about sending our five seniors out in the right way,” Haskins said. “Hopefully we can get them all healthy and out on the floor.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.