CHARLOTTE — Ben Miller knew what his team needed to do in order to beat Limestone on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division II men’s basketball tournament.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team had to contain and limit the dynamic scoring duo of Shaq Dance and Shaun Stewart.
Easier said than done.
Dance and Stewart put on a show at Queens University in Charlotte, accounting for 68 points in the sixth-seeded Saints’ 100-85 victory over the third-seeded Braves. It was the most points allowed by UNCP this season.
Stewart scored 23 of his game-high 37 points in the second half, helping Limestone (27-5) outscore UNCP 59-45 after the break. Dance finished with 31 points for the Saints, who knocked down 14 of their 23 shots from behind the arc and shot 57 percent from the field.
“That’s what they do,” Miller said of Dance and Stewart. “I’m on the bench thinking maybe we should go triangle-and-two or something. That’s something I’ve never done and we haven’t practiced. … I think it was more-so what they did, instead of what we didn’t do.”
Along with Dance and Stewart, Kenny Hairston also gave Limestone a lift with 19 points, including four 3-pointers. The Saints were plus-6 in rebounding margin, plus-20 in bench points and plus-14 in the paint.
It was a bitter end to arguably the sweetest season in program history for the Braves (24-8), who earned a share of the Peach Belt Conference regular-season title before winning the league’s tournament for the first-time ever.
“There’s nothing I can say to make them feel better right now,” Miller said. “But I think when the dust settles, we’ll all look back and feel great about what these guys achieved as a team.”
UNCP appeared to be ready to seize control at the start of the second half, scoring five-straight points to take a 47-43 lead with 18:59 to play.
But Dance and Stewart sparked a 26-7 run for the Saints that proved to be the difference. Stewart hit four of his six 3-pointers in the second half for Limestone, which led by as many as 17 points after a two-handed dunk by Dance with 8:03 left to play. The Braves would cut the deficit to nine points in the final minute after a 3-pointer by Alex Bradley, but would get no closer.
Nigel Grant scored 23 points to lead three Braves in double figures. Alex Bradley added 19 points and Akia Pruitt scored 15 for UNCP, which shot 40 percent from the field.
For Grant, a redshirt junior, the defeat serves as a lesson for the players returning.
“We accomplished a lot. … now it’s time to move forward,” he said.
But the journey is complete for the Braves’ three seniors — Bradley, Quamain Rose and Mike Smith.
Despite the setbacks suffered throughout his career, including an ACL injury that cut his season short last year, Rose has no regrets about his time as a Brave.
“It’s been a blessing and a great journey,” he said. “I wouldn’t take anything back.”
Limestone jumped out to a 34-20 lead in the first half after a pair of free throws by Hairston with 7:49 left, but UNCP closed the half on a 20-7 run to trim the deficit to 41-40 at the break.
It was the kind of competitiveness that served as a pillar for the Braves this season. The kind that helped the 2016-17 team set a new standard for basketball in Pembroke.
“There’s a lot of great basketball ahead for our program,” Miller said. “The future is bright.”
“They’ve had a chance to cut down nets twice (this season). They’ve raised the bar. … the expectations. When I look back on this team, I’ll have nothing but great memories and smiles thinking about how much fun these guys were to coach.”