PEMBROKE — Ben Miller wanted his team to be prepared for Wednesday night.
Miller, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball coach, had his Braves on the court this preseason for some practice.
It didn’t involve a basketball. All the Braves needed were a pair of scissors and a ladder.
“Before the very first practice this season, I stole a page out of (former N.C. State men’s basketball coach) Jimmy Valvano’s book and we went and cut down a net just to practice,” Miller said.
“Some of the guys hadn’t done that. We wanted them to have that vision. So we took the net and we hung it up in the locker room so they could see it every day and know what we were working for.”
The Braves got to put their net-cutting skills to the test after Wednesday’s 89-65 win over Francis Marion earned them a share of the Peach Belt Conference regular season title — the first in program history.
UNCP shares the title with Augusta, which earned an overtime win at USC-Aiken on Wednesday night.
The Braves (21-7, 14-5 PBC) last earned a conference championship in 1990 as members of the NAIA’s Carolinas Conference.
It was the culmination of a journey that began early last season when the Braves were tabbed the preseason favorites to win the league. Things didn’t go as planned for UNCP, which lost all-American guard Quamain Rose to a torn ACL early in the year en route to finishing the season with a 15-13 mark.
“Obviously, last year was a struggle at times,” Miller said. “When Q went down, we played hard and were in a lot of games, we just didn’t close out games. Early this year, we learned how to get some wins without Q and when he came back it just added to our leadership and toughness. It’s a special group.”
For Rose, who was granted a medical hardship waiver for one semester this season, the wait was well worth it.
“We came together at the beginning of the season and cut down the nets. We turned it into a reality (on Wednesday),” said Rose, who finished with 18 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals against the Patriots.
“The injury last year could have ended me, but I came back and we came back. It was worth it. The time to wait was worth it. I’m really getting back to the guy I was before my injury.”
Fellow seniors Alex Bradley and Mike Smith also did their part to help UNCP make history. Bradley, the Braves’ point guard, led the team with 19 points, including five 3-pointers, in UNCP’s seventh straight win.
Bradley buried an NBA-range triple before the end of the half to give UNCP a 41-38 advantage heading into the break. The Braves blitzed the Patriots (11-17, 6-13) in the second half, outscoring the visitors 48-27 to put the home crowd at ease and in a championship state of mind.
With UNCP nursing a three-point lead at the 16:36 mark in the second half, Bradley buried a 3-pointer to ignite a 14-0 run, giving the Braves a 61-44 advantage less than four minutes later. UNCP was on cruise control after that, leading by as many as 20 points after a dunk by Nigel Grant with just over three minutes left to play.
The Braves scored 34 points off of 23 Francis Marion turnovers, with Grant adding 15 points and Akia Pruitt tallying nine points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
With the net draped around his neck following the game, Bradley was reminded of the preseason following the Braves’ disappointing 2015-16 campaign.
“We were definitely disappointed with our outcome last year,” Bradley said. “This (championship) was one of our goals and we got it done. I was just like, ‘It’s about time.’” It’s the first time we’ve done it in school history. It’s something special after being here for five years.”
He was also proud to share the moment with his fellow seniors on senior night.
“We have a real brotherly bond,” Bradley said of his relationship with Rose and Smith. “We play hard together and we win together.”
Smith, known for bringing energy off the bench for the Braves, didn’t record a point in Wednesday’s win, but that didn’t stop him from grabbing four rebounds and dishing out two assists.
“The whole time after the game, people were telling me at mid-court: ‘Mike Smith did what people said he couldn’t do,’” Smith said. “Obviously, I was a walk-on with no guaranteed playing time. People believing in me — the fans, the coaches and my teammates — means so much to me as a person. I’m blessed to be a part of this team and this program at Pembroke.”
As he put the finishing touches on the net while holding his balance atop the ladder, Miller turned to the crowd, net in one hand and scissors in the other, and raised his arms in celebration.
“I was just happy for those guys, seeing them celebrate,” Miller said of the moment. “Mike’s over there in tears and everybody has a chance to hug those seniors. It’s like you draw it up in your mind. It was exactly how you would imagine it.”
But with the Peach Belt Conference tournament set to start Saturday, Miller and the Braves won’t have much time to celebrate. UNCP earned the No. 2 seed and will host North Georgia (15-13) at 3:30 p.m. on Lumbee Guranty Bank Court.
“It’s a fairly quick turnaround, so we’ll get back to work (Thursday),” Miller said. “I’m really happy for our seniors. The underclassmen stepped up to send them out the right way and fortunately we have more basketball to play. Our fans were unbelievable. I hope we get a good share of them back on Saturday afternoon.”