PEMBROKE — Ben Miller chuckled at the thought of his first season as head coach of the men’s basketball team at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
Miller, who is now in his 10th season as leader of the Braves, had just captured his record-breaking 170th victory to surpass Lacey Gane atop the program’s all-time wins list.
“It was definitely humbling those first couple of years,” said Miller, whose 2008-09 debut season ended with a 6-21 record.
“We won six games and then nine games. In Year 3 we got to 18 and made a breakthrough in getting to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. All of those guys who were part of getting to this point. … they’re a part of where this program is now.”
Following UNCP’s 70-61 win over Young Harris on Saturday, Miller stood at mid-court as Jim Gane — one of Lacey’s five children — presented him with a framed reminder of the record-breaking accomplishment.
“I just think it’s well-deserved,” Gane said. “I’m proud of what dad did in setting the standard. Ben has done a great job and I’m just very happy, and proud for him.
“Dad did it in 10 years. Ben did it in 10 years. You have to stay here to break that record. (Ben) built it from rock bottom. These are classy kids that are fun to travel with and it’s just all well-deserved. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”
Miller said he’s always happy to see Gane, who attends most of UNCP’s games, in the stands.
“Their whole family is special to me,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know, not just Jim, but Dwight and the rest of their big family. Butch was my dentist here in town, Dwight’s the golf (professional at Pinecrest Country Club). It’s a real folksy, family atmosphere around here.”
The Braves have been to the NCAA Tournament three times since breaking through in the 2010-11 season. The 2016-17 campaign was the third 20-plus win season for the Braves in the last five years. Last season was capped with a pair of conference championships and another berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“The wins and stuff are more about the tradition and history,” Miller said. “Lacey Gane’s a legend. He really was crucial, along with the other coaches here, in building and having some very successful teams. You think about the guys that have worn these uniforms in the last 50 to 60 years and these (current) guys have built on that tradition. It’s an honor to be a part of it.”
Roughly 50 former players and coaches, including members of the 1968 men’s basketball squad, showed up at the Jones Center on Saturday for alumni weekend to support Miller and the Braves.
Joe Gallagher, the most prolific scorer in program history, was among them. A 1968 graduate of Pembroke State, Gallagher remains the Braves’ all-time leader in points at 2,161.
“It was a very good day,” said Gallagher, whose No. 24 jersey is retired.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years and 11 of the 12 people on that team — the other guy that didn’t show had to go on a cruise with his wife — were here. It was wonderful. Ben and his staff have done a wonderful job. He came into a tough situation. Year by year, he’s gotten better. He’s a building person.”
The storied success from the program’s past isn’t lost on Miller.
“The few years before I got here weren’t great. But you look back 15 to 20 years and there was a lot of tradition,” he said.
“You look at the banners up in the gym. We knew the potential was here, the passion was here. It was just about reigniting it and then finding players that are willing to work and have a vision to work for things together to have a chance to compete for championships.”
While he enjoyed the trip down memory lane and the celebration of another milestone, Miller quickly turned his focus back to his current squad.
At 19-4, including a 15-2 mark in the Peach Belt Conference, the Braves are in a position to add to the tradition.
“I’m just happy about today’s win and just having a chance to coach these guys,” Miller said. “They’re still evolving and developing but they’re a lot of fun to coach. They care about each other and they care about this program.”
That bond was evident on the faces of his players following the milestone victory.
Senior forward Nigel Grant could feel it before the game ended. After knocking down a corner jumper late in the contest, Grant sprinted back down to the other end of the floor — but not before giving Miller a high-five on his way.
Following the game, Grant couldn’t stop smiling when Miller was honored at mid-court.
“I think it’s great,” Grant said.
“Coach has definitely pushed us. I don’t even know if he knew that he was going to be the winningest coach coming into this game until we beat Augusta (on Wednesday). It’s a good feeling.”
For Miller, it’s about continuing — and growing — a tradition that started long before he arrived in Pembroke.
“It’s special. That’s one of the reasons I love being a part Braves basketball,” he said. “We’ve been blessed to have 50, 60, 70 players come back yearly and support these guys. Our basketball family is big and strong.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.