WHITEVILLE — When he first saw the men’s basketball coaches from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke at one of his games, Tyrell Kirk wasn’t sure what to think.
But it didn’t take long for the senior guard from Whiteville to figure out the intentions of Braves coach Ben Miller and his staff.
“When they first saw me, I was like, ‘Who are these coaches?’ Next thing I know, they started coming to every game,” Kirk said. “They haven’t missed many games. They’ve treated me like family and made me feel comfortable around them.”
The 6-foot-4 combo guard said the dedication of UNCP’s coaching staff was “what made me decide” to commit to the Braves via Twitter on Friday afternoon.
On Tuesday, Kirk officially became a Brave during a signing ceremony at Whiteville High School.
“They worked hard and showed me how much they appreciated me,” he said. “That made a difference.”
The District 4 and Three Rivers Conference Player of the Year, Kirk helped the Wolfpack claim a share of the TRC regular-season title and advance to the fourth round of the NCHSAA 1-A state playoffs.
It was a senior campaign that saw the playmaker average 21.9 points, 9 rebounds, 8.8 assists and four blocks per game en route to logging 12 triple-doubles. He will play in the East West all-star basketball game in Greensboro this July.
Kirk drew the interest of several Division I schools, including Mercer, UNC Asheville and George Mason, but it was Pembroke that continued to stay at the forefront of his mind.
“They have a great family atmosphere,” Whiteville coach Jerry Singletary said of UNCP. “I think he fell in love with that knowing that they were here for him. I’m excited for him to finally get it off of his mind so he can start the next era in basketball and his life.”
The brother of Shaun Kirk, a rising junior forward at N.C. State, Tyrell has seen what it takes to get to the college level. The younger Kirk also had the benefit of watching former UNCP guard Quamain Rose, an all-American for the Braves, during his prep years at Whiteville.
“If (Tyrell) is half as good — and probably could be better at some point — then they got a great steal,” Singletary said.
Like Rose, Kirk was groomed into a tremendous leader for the Wolfpack. Whether he was shooting mid-range jumpers or finding an open teammate, Kirk became known for his ability to impact the game in a variety of ways.
“He was another coach on the floor,” Singletary said. “A gamechanger in the sense of leadership and a great kid to play with (on the court). He can be a security blanket.
“I remember when he was a freshman and didn’t play much. He had been in some big-game situations and I was trying to bring him alone slowly. He went out and scored 19 points against East Bladen. It was hard to shelter him after that. He caught on and the next summer, I remember we were playing in the summer league and I had sat down after I put my clipboard down and he had called the defense and offense before I said anything. That’s what stood out to me. He continued to do that here at Whiteville.”
Kirk said he was thankful Singletary gave him the keys to the team early in his prep career, allowing him the opportunity to grow into a role that helped him land a scholarship.
“Coach Singletary taught me how to be a leader,” he said. “It has helped me improve. He taught me to play calm.”
He hopes to show the same moxie when he suits up for the Braves this season. Kirk said Miller told him that UNCP plans to use him in the same way Whiteville did — as a playmaker who has the ability to score and get his teammates involved.
“(Miller) was telling me that I’ll be a good fit for the program as far as me leading the team and making everyone around me better. I just have to work hard, get a spot and they’ll see a show.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.