The decisions of his three veterans to sign with a D-II bottom-dweller four years ago encapsulated courage, an example of what was needed to turn around a program marred by mediocrity.
“These guys care deeply for each other and those other guys in our locker room,” Miller said. “They formed bonds forever. We were coming off six-win seasons when they got here. They came in and changed the history of Braves basketball. I wouldn’t say the program was a joke, but there wasn’t a lot of respect for Braves basketball around the conference.
“It may be hard for them to understand it now because they care so much about winning, but they changed UNCP basketball.”
UNCP’s best season in 22 years ended in heartbreaking fashion after Lincoln Memorial guard Lorenza Ross drained a baseline runner with 4.3 seconds left at USC Aiken’s Convocation Center. Following a timeout to set up a court-length final play, Brackett’s buzzer-beating jumper attempt was off the mark.
“I told the guys that those were two teams capable of winning the whole thing,” Miller said. “It’s a shame we had to play them in the first round. That’s the beauty and also the challenge of the NCAA tournament. There’s only one team and one coach at the end of this thing.
A noticeably disappointed Brackett recalled his first trip to the tournament at Augusta State as a sophomore in 2010. The Braves lost to Augusta, a southeastern region power that dominated with depth and experience.
This one hurt even more for the three-time all-conference star.
“It feels a lot different because this was my last game,” Brackett said after scoring 27 points. “This is it.”
Added Cooper: “I don’t even want to take this jersey off. I know I have to, but I don’t want to.”
Unlike that first postseason contest, the seventh-seeded Braves had chances to win.
UNCP (22-10) took a 76-69 lead with 6:45 left to play against the 13th-ranked Railsplitters after Brackett made a four-point play from the left wing. Lincoln Memorial’s Cam Carden answered at the other end with a 3-pointer of his own plus the foul. He tied it with a pull-up 3-pointer on the Railsplitters’ ensuing possession.
That set the teams up for a furious final five minutes.
UNCP freshman Brandon Winford made 1-of-2 free throws with 1:27 left to tie the game at 80 before the Railsplitters moved in for a final shot after multiple misses at both ends. Ross dribbled past Cooper along the baseline and tossed in a jumper to give Lincoln Memorial a two-point advantage.
Brackett took a contested pull-up jumper at the buzzer but his shot glanced off the side of the rim.
“Our kids stayed in it and made a few more plays at the end,” said Railsplitters coach Josh Schertz.
UNCP’s lackluster defense down the stretch led to the loss as Lincoln Memorial (25-5) finished shooting 70.4 percent from the floor in the second half. The Railsplitters bottled up Blakeney, a first team all-conference selection, in the final minutes. The 6-11 center had 10 points and six rebounds at intermission but finished with 14 and 9 taking just four shots from the floor.
“I thought that was an unbelievable college basketball game,” Schertz said. “Both teams played to win. We were fortunate to make one more play at the end. I told Ben afterwards that it was a shame someone had to lose. Had we not been on the winning side, I would’ve still been proud of my kids.”
The Braves maintained a lead over the last 10:17 of the opening half due in large part to Brackett’s efforts.
The Florence, S.C. native shouted at teammates midway through the opening frame, relaying the importance of boxing out against one of the nation’s top rebounding teams. On the ensuing possession following a timeout, Brackett gathered in a miss and streaked down the floor for a one-handed slam that put the Braves ahead, 27-22.
The lead swelled to seven before Lincoln Memorial made a pair of buckets in the last minute.
Miller complimented his team’s effort, its late-season run to a second-place finish in the Peach Belt Conference and the impact his three seniors made in Pembroke.
“These guys have left a legacy of great leadership,” Miller said. “K.J. and George will graduate in the spring and Shahmel in the summer. The way they’ve grown up as men and leaders will carry over into their lives. They’ll be great fathers, great coaches or great businessmen and that’s what it’s all about.”