PEMBROKE — The UNCP men’s basketball team did what it does best in Wednesday’s game against Francis Marion.
After the Patriots used a furious rally to tie the game up late in the second half, the Braves settled down, got down in a defensive stance, and locked down the visitors the rest of the way en route to a 66-60 win to stay atop the PBC standings.
“Honestly, this is the best defensive team we’ve had in 10 years,” said UNCP coach Ben Miller.
“These guys have bought in to that aspect from Day 1. We’ve had a couple of games where the intensity wasn’t quite what it should’ve been, but they’ve always responded and re-dedicated themselves in those situations.”
After a 17-3 run early in the second half put the Braves (21-5, 17-3 PBC) on edge, Francis Marion only scored five points in the final five minutes of the game.
With senior Brandon Watts making life tough for PBC-leading scorer Detrek Browning, who logged 18 points to finish seven points shy of his season average, the Braves held Francis Marion to 36.7 percent from the field — its worst shooting night of the season.
“These guys kept grinding and were able to win it at the defensive end which was awesome,” Miller said.
“Holding them to 36 percent from the floor, they’re probably the best offensive team — percentage-wise — in the league and our guys really guarded them.”
James Murray-Boyles carried the load on the offensive end with a game-best 18 points for the Braves, who also got 13 points and seven rebounds from Nigel Grant. Lumberton native David Strother finished with eight points, six rebounds and five assists.
Grant’s two-handed dunk with 3:55 left to play gave the Braves the lead for good. After Francis Marion trimmed the deficit to one point, Murray-Boyles used a drop step to muscle in a basket and extend the lead to 59-56 with two minutes left.
Then, Strother ripped the net with a 3-pointer from the corner to give UNCP some breathing room with 1:17 left to play as Francis Marion endured a 1-for-12 stretch from the field.
“I felt like it was going to go in and I’ve been putting up extra shots this week so I guess it paid off,” Strother said.
Murray-Boyles provided the final boom with a slam in transition with 13 seconds left to play, followed by a pair of free throws by Strother to ice the game.
“I wanted to dunk it a little harder, but I couldn’t really catch it,” Murray-Boyles said with a laugh.
“It felt good, though.”
It took the Patriots 13 minutes to reach double digits in the first half as UNCP jumped out to a 28-9 lead. The Braves scored 13 points off of Francis Marion’s 12 first-half turnovers to carry a 39-26 lead into the break.
UNCP will close out the regular season on Saturday when it battles Flagler (9-16, 6-15) in the second half of a 1:30 p.m. doublheader.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.