PEMBROKE — The humbling experience for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team came when a chance to help clinch the outright Peach Belt Conference regular-season title slipped out of its grasp on the road at Clayton State Feb. 17.
The Braves, who had held five of their last seven opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the floor, allowed the Lakers to shoot 49 percent from the floor and take an 83-73 win. Since then, the defense has been dedicated not to let it happen again.
“After that loss at Clayton, we have been locked in that we are not going to lose another game because of our defense,” senior Brandon Watts said. “If shots don’t fall, we can control how we play defense.”
After sharing the regular-season crown with Clayton State, who the Braves split the season series with, UNCP (23-5) is the No. 2-seed in the Peach Belt Conference tournament that starts tonight with a home quarterfinal game at 7:30 p.m. against No. 7 Georgia Southwestern (13-13).
The UNCP women’s team travels to top-seeded North Georgia for a 6 p.m. tipoff today.
Coach Ben Miller is taking the Braves to the conference tournament for the six time in his 10-year stint with the program and has seen the rededicated outlook the defense has taken. In the two games since the loss at Clayton State, UNCP has held Francis Marion to 37 percent from the floor and Flagler to 38 percent to produce a pair of wins.
“They did kind of rededicate themselves after the Clayton game,” Miller said. “We didn’t have our best defensive effort, and they knew that. That wasn’t a good feeling. We haven’t tasted a lot of defeats this year, but it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s not bad to get a taste of that late heading into the postseason.”
The opening-round opponent for the Braves is a team they held to their two best defensive shooting percentage outings of the season. Five Hurricanes are averaging more than 11 points per game this season, led by junior guard R.J. Sessions at 15 points per game.
Georgia Southwestern’s ability to attack off the drive and from deep is where Miller has his team focusing on heading into the quarterfinal matchup.
“They’ve got good balance and are good off the bounce with penetration, and have some big guys that can step out and shoot 3s. It’s unusual to see two guys that shoot that many 3s at the four and the five. They’ve got five or six guys that shoot it very well so guarding the 3-point line and penetration and rebounding the ball are important,” he said. “I think at this time of the year, everybody knows what you are doing, especially in conference. So, your execution has to be that much sharper to get production at the offensive end.”
Coming in as the reigning tournament champions, the taste of winning last year and wanting to repeat the same results as last year with a regular-season and tournament title is driving players like Watts.
“I want to finish out with a bang by getting to the tournament championship game and win that and get a repeat of that like we did with the conference championship,” Watts said. “Getting a taste of what we had is kind of great, and if we meet up with Clayton in the championship that’s great. Like we did last year where we lost to Columbus (State) earlier in the year and got payback so it would be even better to play Clayton in the championship.”
Each year Miller said that each team, including his, has four championships it wants to win. The Braves have already claimed one, and now are among seven others that want the second trophy.
“It’s like a brand new season with a fresh start for everybody,” Miller said. “There’s four every year with the conference regular season, the conference tournament, the regional and the national championship. We got step one and now let’s go after the next one.”
Women’s coach John Haskins knows with his team taking on the second-highest scoring offense in the Peach Belt Conference that his team has to find a way to be more efficient at getting the ball in the goal today.
“No. 1 we’ve got to score. They’re averaging more than 70 points a game. They get up and down the floor and have good post players and they can shoot the ball well,” Haskins said. “We can talk all we want about defense, and we are going to have to play good defense and compete on the glass, but we’ve got to score.”
North Georgia is averaging over 76 points per game in conference play, while the Lady Braves are 10th in the conference at 62.5 points per game. The Lady Braves dropped their two meetings to the Lady Nighthawks this season by 13 points each.
Leading that high-powered offense is the 3-point shooting of Amber Skidgel at nearly 37 percent and the post play Deanna Blankinship. The pair are the team’s leading scorers for a balanced roster that has eight players that average more than 15 minutes a game.
“Defensively, we’ve got to limit Skidgel’s 3-point opportunities and do a good job on Blankinship. She always seems to hurt us, she’s just fundamentally sound and posts hard for them,” Haskins said. “The problem is you can key in on here and they’ve got perimeter kids that can make shots. Defensively they put teams in a bind.”
After losing its first six road contests, UNCP has hit its stride away from the English Jones Center with four wins away from home in its last seven trips.
“I think we’ve had good road wins and more success on the road,” Haskins said. “Even the North Georgia game was a five-point game with about 4 1/2 minutes left.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.