Led by a three-player senior class that’s becoming one of the most decorated in program history, the Braves won for the 12th time in 13 home games Saturday, setting a new single-season record for Peach Belt wins while inching closer to an NCAA Tournament berth with a 97-84 victory over Flagler.
UNCP’s Class of 2013 — George Blakeney, Shahmel Brackett and K.J. Cooper — has put together a 62-50 record over four seasons, making them the first class to surpass 60 wins since 1994.
“It’s special and we’re really trying to savor it,” Brackett said after a 29-point effort in his next to last home game. “I think we’re really motivated to keep playing basketball and keep this season going.”
The Braves (19-8, 12-5) were ranked sixth in the all-important region rankings coming into Saturday and have a chance to move up a spot or two after the win coupled with a victory on Wednesday at Francis Marion. Next weekend’s regular season finale in Pembroke against region No. 1 USC Aiken would lock-in an invite to Division II’s Big Dance.
“I challenge the community and the fans to really make that game an exciting atmosphere,” UNCP head coach Ben Miller said. “We have a tough road game this week, but if we can get past that one and pack the place for USC Aiken, it would be really great for our guys. This senior class deserves it.”
Miller has fought back emotions throughout the second half of the season when commenting on his three veterans — a trio he reruited — who have helped turn around a program at the bottom upon his arrival in 2008.
Nothing changed Saturday.
“I can’t even describe what it will feel like for me next week seeing those three take the floor for the last time here (at home). I don’t want to think about it,” Miller said.
Flagler upset UNCP on Feb. 9, but the rematch didn’t have the same back and forth feel down the stretch. The Braves played their usual transition-heavy offense and fed off of energy from the bench, notably freshman guard Alex Bradley, to lead by double digits most of the second half.
UNCP closed the first half on a 15-2 run and stretched the margin to as many as 22 in the closing minutes. Flagler (11-14, 7-11) shot 47 percent from the floor and made 15-of-37 3-pointers but went to the line only six times compared to 26 trips from the home team.
The Braves forced 15 turnovers and out-rebounded the opposition, 47-33. Blakeney notched his conference-leading 13th double-double, finishing with 26 points and 16 rebounds. Cooper added four assists and two steals.
“I don’t like seeing that high a number right there,” Miller said, pointing to Flagler’s field goal percentage on the stat sheet. “We’re still not playing at a championship level defensively and that worries me a bit, but I know we’re capable and the guys are continuing to work towards that goal.”
After his 9-of-14 performance from the floor, a tally that included five 3-pointers, Brackett moved into 10th all-time on the PBC career scoring list. In Wednesday’s win at Armstrong Atlantic, the Florence, S.C. native dropped a career-high 37.
“My teammates do a great job of getting me the ball in good spots,” Brackett said. “I’m appreciative of the confidence they have in me.”
UNCP takes its four-game winning streak down Interstate 95 South to Francis Marion on Wednesday. The Braves won the previous meeting this season by 23 points.