In similar fashion to the second half of last season’s run to the NCAA Tournament, Miller’s mixture of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance boasts a resiliency that is tough to teach.
“I like our chemistry right now,” UNCP’s fourth-year coach said after his squad’s eighth win in nine games. “It seems to be getting better all the time and you need it to survive in this league. We’re going to have some ups and downs, but it’s nice to have a team that is able to overcome those challenges in a given game.”
Against a conference arch nemesis, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke achieved its first-ever 4-0 start in Peach Belt, outlasting the Lakers, 78-73.
“(Clayton State) has a good program with some really good players, so I’m happy with the win,” Miller said. “You have to find different ways to win sometimes and we gutted it out.”
The Braves (10-4, 4-0) kept pace with USC Aiken atop the PBC East Division with accurate free-throw shooting and key stops down the stretch. Marcus Heath’s baseline jumper with 19.6 seconds left was the final dagger, putting his team up by six. Heath scored all eight of his points in the second half to help UNCP snap a three-game losing skid to Clayton State (8-4, 1-3) that dates back to 2008.
“It’s the first time in awhile we’ve gotten a win over them,” Heath said, referring to the Braves’ 18 losses in their last 22 games against the Lakers. “The way we kept our composure and kept fighting shows that our team is growing up and getting better.”
UNCP led by as many as eight after intermission before the Lakers took their first lead of the second half on Teondre Williams’ 3-pointer at the 7:51 mark. The Braves regained the lead on Shahmel Brackett’s long-range jumper on their next possession at 62-60 and never trailed again.
Brackett helped the Braves shake off a shaky start in the first half with a four-point play that fueled an 11-2 run. UNCP overcame a 17-6 deficit to open the contest with stops on the defensive end and a knack for getting to the free-throw line.
When Miller’s blazer came off after a few off-balance possessions early, the Braves went to work.
“We got focused and played better as the game went one,” Brackett said.
Brackett finished with a team-high 17 points including all four of his team’s 3-point makes. George Blakeney pitched in with 15 points while K.J. Cooper finished with 14. For the game, the Braves made 35-of-42 shots from the charity stripe compared to a 16-of-35 mark for Clayton State.
“It was frustrating early because we usually start games pretty well and tonight we obviously didn’t,” Miller said. “It was good to see the guys hang in there and kind of play through some of that. We didn’t shoot the ball very well.”
University of Hawaii transfer Anthony Salter kept the Lakers in the contest throughout with an array off mid-range jumpers, 3-pointers and dribble drives. Salter poured in a career-high 26 while the Braves limited the opposition’s leading scorer, Teondre Willams, to eight points. He came into Thursday’s game averaging 21.9.
“We took this one personal because of all the trash talking,” Brackett said. “Those two guards they had were talking all night.”
Lady Braves dropped by defending champs
The UNCP women’s basketball team fell to 1-3 in conference play Thursday after a 58-40 loss to Clayton State, Division II’s defending national champions.
Despite struggling on offense throughout the contest, the Braves hung around with the Peach Belt’s best team for 34 minutes until Tanisha Woodard’s three-point play with 5:58 to play put the Lakers ahead 49-37. The margin was more than enough for Clayton State who managed three players in double figures.
The Braves shot a dismal 27.9 percent from the floor while the teams combined for 44 turnovers. In a sluggish first half that saw four lead changes, UNCP and Clayton State went scoreless the first two and a half minutes of the games.
“Our defense was good enough to give us a chance to win,” UNCP coach John Haskins said.
The Lady Braves host Montevallo (5-6, 0-2) on Saturday. Tip off has been set for 1:30 p.m., with the UNCP men following the conclusion of the women’s game.
Reach Staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at firstname.lastname@example.org