GREENWOOD, S.C. — Brandon Watts remembers the running.
Reflecting on the journey from a 61-point exhibition loss to North Carolina at the start of the season to Sunday’s Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship game, the junior guard for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team said he remembers “all of the conditioning.”
Drawing laughs from Braves coach Ben Miller following UNCP’s 89-77 win over Columbus State, Watts knew the pain of early-morning sprints had finally paid off.
For the first time in program history, the Braves are PBC Tournament champions, securing their fourth NCAA Tournament berth in the last six years.
“We were the second-half team so we had our legs,” said Watts, who scored 14 of his team-best 18 points in the second half of Sunday’s win en route to earning all-tournament honors.
“We can see it paying off and going into the tournament I feel like we’re going to have fresh legs. I feel like we’re prepared for this.”
Winners of 10 straight games, the Braves (24-7) will head to Charlotte this weekend for the NCAA Southeast Regional at Queens University. UNCP, the No. 3 seed in the region, will battle sixth-seeded Limestone (26-5) at noon in Saturday’s opening round. Ticket prices are $10 for adults, and $5 for children (17 and under), college students (with valid I.D.) and senior citizens (62 and older).
“It’s a fun group of guys and I’m glad we get to keep playing together,” Miller said. “These guys really locked in defensively in the second half (against Columbus State) and they’ve bought into that as a team — defense and rebounding and just sharing the ball.”
UNCP trailed by five points at the half after allowing Columbus State to shoot a blistering 63 percent from the field. The Braves buckled down in the second half, limiting the Cougars (20-9) to just 35 percent shooting.
“Before the game, we knew this would be a battle,” Miller said. “(On Saturday against Lander) we got going and shot it well and the margin widened out pretty quickly. We didn’t expect that today at all.
“We knew it would be a dog fight, and that’s what you want for a championship game. They’re a good team that’s going to be in the NCAA Tournament. The Peach Belt is a great league and it has great depth.”
Using its incredible depth with five players finishing in double figures, UNCP outscored Columbus State 48-31 in the second half, closing the game with an 18-7 run.
Freshman Akia Pruitt logged 15 points and nine rebounds en route to earning tournament MVP honors. James Murray-Boyles added 15 points and seven rebounds off the bench, with Nigel Grant tallying 13 points and Quamain Rose netting 11.
“We’re blessed to have really good depth,” Miller said. “You have guys like J.B. and Carson (Mounce) coming off the bench to give guys a breather or if they’re in foul trouble. These guys could start in a lot of places. That’s what is special about this bunch — they’re really in it for each other.”
With Pruitt and Watts by his side at the postgame press conference on Sunday afternoon, Miller closed by reflecting on his message to the team earlier in the day.
“(Sunday) morning after breakfast, I told them that there are a lot of college players that play a whole career and don’t have a chance to make history or do something at the school that hasn’t been done,” he said.
“These guys were able to do that in the regular season. To have an opportunity to do that again this weekend was really special.”
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team celebrates after earning its first Peach Belt Conference tournament title in program history with an 89-77 win over Columbus State on Sunday.
Watching the NCAA Selection Show at the English E. Jones Center on Sunday night, the Braves cheer as they punch their ticket with a fourth tournament berth in the last six years.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.