Ask anyone associated with UNCP men’s basketball and they’ll tell you the turnaround under fifth-year head coach Ben Miller is directly linked to the leadership of three old-timers — Shahmel Brackett, George Blakeney and K.J. Cooper.
Saturday’s home finale against Peach Belt champion USC Aiken is a lasting curtain call for the trio says Miller, an afternoon dedicated to the impact each senior has made on Braves basketball.
“Those guys deserve the spotlight,” Miller said. “The hard work, dedication and leadership they’ve provided can’t even be put into words. A lot of our fans and some of our students remember when it might not have been much fun to watch a basketball game here.
“This senior class has changed that and I think it’ll continue.”
UNCP’s promoting a “Solid Gold Senior Day” on campus and Miller would like to see a “capacity crowd” for the 3:30 p.m. tip. The Braves (20-8, 13-5) boast a 12-1 record at the Jones Center and have 20 overall wins for first time in two decades. They’ve won five straight games and are averaging 99.8 points per game over that span.
A win over the Pacers (19-6, 15-3) likely solidifies a berth in the Division II NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a unique opportunity for the community and our school to show how much they care,” Miller said. “We’ve had a great environment here at home this season and I hope it continues in our last game.”
USC Aiken clinched the regular season Peach Belt title with Wednesday’s win over Augusta State and is trying to earn a regional host in the NCAA Tournament with a win Saturday and three next week in the conference tournament.
Blakeney, Brackett and Cooper will each be honored with a special gift prior to tip-off. Cooper was a redshirt freshman in 2009 when Blakeney and Brackett arrived in Pembroke and together, they’ve recorded more wins — 64 — than any triple threat since the Braves have had since 1994.
Bracket and Blakeney are each members of the 1,000-point club and have strong shots at being named all-conference selections at season’s end. Cooper’s ability to come off screens and knock down pull-up jumpers on the wing has given the Braves an additional security blanket with veteran experience late in games.
UNCP was picked to finish third in the conference in the pre-season thanks to the PBC’s strongest returning senior core.
“It’s a big day, one we’ve all been kind of looking forward to,” Blakeney said after Wednesday’s victory at Francis Marion. “It’s crazy that it’s all almost over, but we’ve still got some ball to play. We’re just staying focused and trying to get better day by day.”
A bit of a surprise was the release of Wednesday night’s southeast region rankings that saw the Braves stay put at No. 6 despite multiple wins over the last week. The top eight teams qualify for NCAA regional bids at season’s end.
USC Aiken’s slide from No. 1 to the second spot means UNCP would travel to Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., if regional sites were chosen today and the Braves were selected.