Thayer’s dance moves were subpar compared to the shoulder slither flow that high-energy forward Reggie Cobia had in store.
Ben Miller, the Braves’ soft-spoken coach who inherited a men’s basketball program stuck in mediocrity, had a front-row seat for the victory celebration of a team he helped revitalize. Alongside his father, Eldon, and fellow assistant Ben Thompson, the staff cracked a smile and clapped in unison to savor the culmination of a regular season dedicated to a brilliant senior class.
Seldom do the Braves get to take turns at the Harlem Shake with the student pep band, but Saturday’s senior day against USC Aiken was that of special circumstance as the Braves shook off the region’s second-ranked team to send a program-changing veteran trio out with a memorable victory.
“It’s crazy how much all of our hard work has paid off,” said Cooper, a fifth-year senior. “All these guys are like brothers to me and I’ll never forget the experience I’ve had.”
Cooper, Blakeney and Brackett helped UNCP improve its best record in two decades to 21-8, solidifying a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Ranked sixth in the southeast region heading into Saturday, the Braves’ win over the conference champion Pacers likely pushes them into the top four when rankings are released next week.
The senior trifecta reached the Big Dance in 2010 and can’t wait to get back.
“We knew if we could take care of business today, we would probably earn the respect of all the people that doubted us,” Blakeney said after a 21-point, 15-rebound finale. “We’re still taking it game by game, but it would be cool to make it deep in the tournament. I’m still kind of speechless.”
Blakeney and Brackett were members of Miller’s first full recruiting class at UNCP, joining Cooper who redshirted. They’ve helped the Braves transform from Peach Belt doormat to contender and each contributed Saturday in front of largest home crowd — 3,022 — ever at the Jones Center.
“I’ve never heard it that loud before,” Blakeney said after a brief run midway through the second half put the Braves ahead by double digits. “We’ve come a long way.”
Brackett, one of the PBC’s all-time leading scorers at just over 1,500 career points, watched the final 7:38 from the bench after being whistled for his fifth foul on the perimeter. With the game knotted at 69, UNCP responded without its leader — a passing of the torch perhaps to freshmen Quamain Rose and Brandon Winford — and outscored USC Aiken the rest of the way, 33-22.
Rose scored 19 points and handed out nine assists. Winford contributed a double-double with 15 and 12. The victory broke last season’s home record for wins with 13 and finalized UNCP’s conference mark at 14-5.
This is the same program that has suffered 10 20-loss seasons over the last two decades and lost 102 games over a four year span from 2002 to 2006. The same dormant franchise that averaged a few hundred fans during Miller’s first season and has ascended into the PBC’s home attendance leader.
“Ever since I started here, players have just bought into coach Miller’s system and have listened to what he’s had to say,” Brackett said. “We believe in each other. We’re a family. We’ve played together as a team and the results feel great.”
Miller grabbed the microphone after the game and thanked his seniors — and the fans — on a memorable season.
But it’s not over.
The next step is next week’s conference tournament in Columbus, Ga., followed by the regional round in the NCAA Tournament. The Braves have never won a regional contest.
“We’re excited, but not done yet by any means,” Blakeney said.