MORROW, Ga. — After falling on the road at Clayton State 15 days prior to the Peach Belt Conference tournament championship game, a possible rematch was on the minds The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team’s players and coaches.
Following the quarterfinal round, the location and field for the final two rounds of the conference tournament was set for Clayton State, and coach Ben Miller saw a chance at redemption for his team. The Braves’ head coach even caught himself cheering for a possible rematch.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was rooting for Clayton, and the guys in the back of their minds wanted a chance to come back here,” he said.
The Braves got their wish, and then delivered on Sunday afternoon, using a late defensive stand to secure a 70-60 win in the tournament championship game, capping off two years worth of conference regular-season and tournament championships.
To do it on the home floor of the team that handed UNCP it’s last loss was sweet redemption in tough conditions.
“This is different. Going into somebody’s house and winning on their court is not easy to do,” Miller said. “These guys are tough enough and got it done, and found a way.”
UNCP becomes the third school in Peach Belt Conference history to win back-to-back tournament crowns, and the second program to win the conference regular-season and tournament championships in two straight years.
Grant earned MVP honors for the tournament with his 26-point performance in the title game. Akia Pruitt was selected to the all-tournament team. Pruitt scored 17 points and had seven rebounds against the Lakers, a day after scoring 20 in the win against Francis Marion.
After the game was over, Grant was a little impatient about cutting down the nets, running up on the ladder before the postgame presentations. To him, cutting the nets was the final piece of getting revenge.
“I was ready to cut down the nets because they were talking a little mess to me, and I was ready to cut down their nets in their hometown,” Grant said with the nylon netting draped around his neck. “It’s really surreal right now. I know I say that a lot, but it is surreal. I prayed on this a lot and I’ve been working hard a lot. This is my senior year and I wanted to go out on top.”
The Braves are now locked into the program’s fifth NCAA tournament appearance and UNCP’s first chance to go back-to-back to the big dance.
UNCP (26-5) found itself in a back-and-forth second half with Clayton State (23-6), and used the defense of Micah Kinsey, playing in front of a large crowd of about 20 friends and family just 30 minutes from where he grew up in Atlanta, as leverage for a late run.
“This is what I could hope for. You couldn’t ask for something like this,” Kinsey said. “If it was anywhere else, we wouldn’t have a crowd like we did. It would just be Clayton’s crowd and all the momentum would be against us. But our crowd, well my home crowd, helped give us the advantage.”
Down 48-45 to the Lakers midway through the second half, Kinsey came up with a pair of steals in the open court that led to Pruitt scores to spark a run that led to the Braves taking a 57-49 lead with 5:58 left. Clayton State had an answer that drew it to 64-60 with 2:55 left on a JaCari Owens layup.
From there, the score never changed for the home team as Clayton State missed its last five shots and turned the ball over three times.
“Defensively, this team has taken the challenge that defense and rebounding wins championships,” Miller said. “This is a defensive, tough-minded group.”
One of those turnovers was the third steal of the game for Kinsey that came seconds after a Pruitt dunk erupted the UNCP bench by taking 68-60 lead with 45 seconds left.
“I had to stay solid and smart on defense,” he said. “Instead of reaching on the ball, I would go to where the ball was being passed, from a different angle. Luckily it got me three steals, three important steals.”
“Those final three minutes, I’m taking my hat off to Micah,” Grant said. “He played like a dog out there, he locked up, locked in and he did his thing.”
Fouls quickly racked up for the Braves in the first half with 13 total being whistled on the tournament’s No. 2 seed, and 10 coming in the first 10 minutes. During that span, UNCP’s bench was hampered when Kinsey and James Murray-Boyles were called for three and starting forward Pruitt being called for a pair in the first six minutes of the contest. In total, 29 fouls were called in the first half between the two teams.
With his frontcourt teammates on the bench or playing cautiously, Grant saw his time to take over in the first half.
“With those guys not available, I felt like I had to pick up my game offensively and defensively,” Grant said. “Akia is third in the nation in blocked shots and I felt like I had to step it up on both ends of the court.”
Grant scored 18 points in the first half, and had a few hustle plays standing in to take charges late in the first half to help the Braves reclaim a 35-34 advantage.
To play through the tough situations that were thrown its way, UNCP showcased toughness. That willingness to fight through was just another display of the Braves grit that Miller said is a staple of this team.
“The toughness showed when we got in foul trouble, but we found a way,” he said.
Three Clayton State players scored in double figures as Nathan Powell totaled 16 points, Aubrey McRae had 12 and Owens had 10. Powell and Owens were named to the all-tournament team for the Lakers that are in good position to make the NCAA tournament as well.”
The UNCP men’s basketball team celebrates its second straight Peach Belt Conference tournament championship after a 70-60 win over Clayton State on Sunday. Nigel Grant had 26 points in the game and was named tournament MVP.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.