The Braves, sitting at 3-3 in the Peach Belt before a pivotal road swing, fell flat on a Sunday afternoon against a team sitting at the bottom of the league’s western division whose lost five consecutive games since.
It was an abrupt wake-up call for a squad with lofty expectations according to coach Ben Miller.
“I was hoping we didn’t need one of those, but it happens,” Miller said Monday. “Most teams I’ve been around need something like that to happen and I think it really sharpened our focus over these last few games.”
UNCP (13-7, 6-3) bounced back from the shocker with three wins over its next four contests — all on the road — to pull within two games of East Division leader USC Aiken. Saturday’s victory at Augusta State was the program’s first in 11 years at Christenberry Fieldhouse, the site of UNCP’s only NCAA Tournament loss in 2011.
Senior captain Shahmel Brackett, who missed four games with an Achilles injury suffered against Columbus State, struggled to find a rhythm in his first action in weeks but delivered a strong presence at the defensive end and brought with him a sense of urgency that trickled through the team.
A losing record on the road trip would’ve damaged UNCP’s hopes at being one of eight teams selected to the conference tournament in March and ultimately, an at-large berth in the Big Dance.
“That was kind of neat over that stretch to watch the guys perform at a level they’re capable of,” Miller said. “We’ve been focused as a team to get better shots and lean on each other a little more without Shahmel. I think we’re executing more efficiently, screening better and cutting harder.
“It’s a lot to ask when you lose your top scoring option and one of our better defenders, but other guys had to step up and seniors led the way.”
The Braves began the trek with a double overtime victory in Greenwood, S.C. at Lander on Jan. 13 after surviving a tongue lashing and subsequent early-morning practices from Miller following the loss to Georgia Southwestern. Three days later, UNCP led the final 18 minutes of the game and held on for a 78-73 win against Clayton State.
The team’s eight-hour drive to 2012 Division II runner-up Montevallo proved most challenging and ended with a lopsided 23-point loss. The Falcons hit 7-of-9 3-pointers in the second half to blow open a tight game at intermission and became the first PBC team to out-rebound the Braves all season.
“Other than that half, I’ve been very happy with out effort,” Miller said. “I remember a coach telling me one time ‘when you’re in a stance, you have a chance.’ We didn’t play well enough defensively and had a couple lapses at Montevallo. Those guys are bunch that really capitalize on your mistakes.”
George Blakeney picked up his production in Brackett’s absence with a 17 and 10 average and made it a point to call for the ball down low in halfcourt sets. He’s pulled down more rebounds as a senior — 187 — than anyone else in the league.
“His combination of rebounding ability and scoring production makes him the best center in our league,” Miller said. “He’s been real consistent all season and has continued to show leadership in his own way. Shahmel and George are a little more vocal while K.J. (Cooper) does it by example.”
With nine conference games remaining before league tournament selection time, Miller wants his players to continue moving forward with a defense-first mentality. UNCP has played its best basketball at home this season and has six contests left at the Jones Center beginning with Saturday’s showdown with division rival Armstrong Atlantic State. The top four finishers from each division qualify for the conference tournament.
If the season ended today, Aiken (8-2), Armstrong (6-3), Augusta State (5-4) and UNCP (6-4) would all qualify. Flagler is one game back in the East at 5-5. The Braves have two games remaining with the Saints.
“It adds to the excitement in February when so many teams are jockeying for position in the conference,” Miller said. “Any team is capable of winning on a given night in this league, but having six of our final nine at home is a unique situation for us. I like how the Peach Belt has it with only a few select teams being invited to the league tournament. It makes the regular season that much more exciting.”
UNCP ranks second in the PBC in home attendance at just over 1,300 fans per conference game, the highest in Miller’s five-year tenure.
“Our fans have been awesome,” Miller said. “And it’s not just the students. The community has come out in force and really supported our guys. A packed house gives us a lot of extra energy.”