PEMBROKE — The age-old adage that defense wins championships proved to be true once again on Saturday.
The Peach Belt Conference’s top defensive percentage team, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s men’s basketball team, capped off its regular season with another strong defensive outing in a 78-67 win at home against Flagler, to the Braves back-to-back regular season titles for the first time in program history. UNCP shares the title with Clayton State.
Just like the Braves did a year and a day after winning the first title in 2017, the post-game celebration involved bringing out the ladder from the equipment room to cut down the nets on the two goals in the English Jones Center. Senior Nigel Grant, who was one of four seniors honored on senior day, said that to be back where the Braves were a year ago seemed like a unattainable feat.
“It’s surreal. I didn’t think we would be able to cut it down two times in a row,” Grant said. “It felt fake being out there, playing in that game and going out a champion.”
Grant made what he felt was out of reach a reality with his play, scoring a game-best 21 points, including 12 after halftime to guide UNCP (23-5, 19-3 PBC) past Flagler (9-17, 6-16 PBC). He did that while knocking down a pair of 3-pointers in the second half that made his smile, that wore for most of the game on the floor and the bench, grow even bigger.
“I just wanted to keep a positive mentality out there,” Grant said. “It was tough game in the beginning, but I wanted to keep having fun and my teammates were telling me to keep doing what I was doing and kept egging me on.”
For coach Ben Miller, this is a fitting end to a regular season with his “favorite team,” he has coached at UNCP due to their all-around play and hard work.
“We got a taste of it last year, and I know they wanted to do it again so I’m happy for these guys,” Miller said. “This is a special group with their work ethic and their leadership. For a head coach to have senior leadership and staff like I do, it’s just a lot of fun and I appreciate these guys.”
Looking to defend its Peach Belt Conference tournament, UNCP will be the No. 2 seed after losing the tiebreaker with the Lakers, and hosts Georgia Southwestern on Wednesday.
The Braves held the Saints to 37 percent from the floor in the game, the 15th time they have held an opponent to under 40 percent shooting in a contest. Spearheading the UNCP defense was senior Brandon Watts, whose active hands grabbed a pair of steals, pulled down six rebounds and swatted one Flagler shot, even when shots weren’t falling.
“I’ve always had the mentality off never give up,” he said. “Even when the first didn’t work out, I was happy we had a second half for that.”
Watts closed his career at home the winningest player in UNCP basketball history and scored eight points in the second half to help the Braves hold off Flagler’s runs in the second half that cut the lead to eight points with 16:25 left.
“I remember watching him when we recruited him and he had great shooting nights and games where shots weren’t falling, but he was a winner,” Miller said.
In the first half while the seniors struggled to hit their stride on offense, freshmen David Strother and Tyrell Kirk and junior James Muarry-Boyles carried the offensive load.
All three scored seven points in the first 15 minutes of the contest. Strother dished out five assists in the contest and Murray-Boyles came a rebound shy of a double-double with 20 points and nine boards.
UNCP held Flagler to 32 percent shooting in the first half and forced eight turnovers to lead 40-28 at the break.
Damerit Brown had a team-high 19 points for Flagler.
First quarter fuels Flagler girls to victory
A slow start plagued the UNCP women basketball team in a 65-53 loss to Flagler at home on senior day.
After trailing 23-8 after the first quarter, UNCP (10-16, 8-14 PBC) was unable to chip into the Flagler (18-8, 16-6 PBC) lead. Both teams posted 16 points in the second quarter and 12 points in the third.
In that first quarter, UNCP hit three field goals, while Flagler connected on 9-of-17 shots from the floor. Tabitha Odabe had 10 points in the first half.
The Lady Saints shot 45 percent from the floor in the game, led by Tiffany Hodge going 7-for-10 with a game-high 15 points.
In the fourth quarter, the Lady Braves’ defense locked in to hold Flagler without a shot from the floor for more than five minutes to trim the lead down to 59-49 with less than two minutes left in the contest, but time would halt the Lady Braves’ comeback.
Nyla Allen recorded a double-double on her senior day with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Fellow senior Kasey Drayton had 13 points.
The Lady Braves will play at North Georgia on Wednesday in the Peach Belt Conference quarterfinals as the No. 8-seed.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.