FLORENCE, S.C. — Saturday’s game against Newberry had a roller-coaster feel for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team.
But then that’s just how the Braves’ whole week has been.
After head coach Ben Miller was placed on administrative leave Monday, the team opened their season with an come-from-behind overtime win over Catawba Friday, then backed it up with a 73-69 win over Newberry in the South Atlantic Conference/Peach Belt Conference Challenge in Florence, S.C.
“It shows the maturity and the leadership we have on this team,” UNCP assistant coach Tony Jones said. “We’ve got six seniors, and they’ve been in tough games before. We played Catawba last year and went to overtime with them, and we’ve played tough teams like Newberry before, and it’s come down to the end and the guys have really come together and led each other, and really executed at the end. Our team captains and our seniors are really strong-minded, and have a really good sense of leadership.”
After a back-and-forth first half, Newberry (1-1) opened up a 44-37 lead with 13:48 to go and looked ready to pull away. The Braves answered with a 13-0 run to take a 50-44 lead with 11:10 to go. UNCP (2-0) never trailed from that point, although Newberry never went away either and got as close as two points late.
“Our guys showed a lot of poise, on offense and on defense,” Jones said. “Newberry is a good team; they’re going to beat a lot of teams this year, they’re well-coached and they executed well. Our guys just had a very strong mentality of executing our stuff. (Newberry) was trying to force us out of our offense, and our guys just held strong to our principles and our concepts and we executed.”
The run included two layups by Jordan Ratliffe, a three by Shaun Kirk and two threes by Jabrie Bullard. Bullard, a redshirt senior who transferred to UNCP from Newberry, led the Braves with 18 points on the strength of a 6-for-9 shooting effort from distance.
“It was just a good opportunity to get back and play against my old team,” Bullard said. “(The run) was really big because we just stopped them at a point.”
David Strother scored 16 points for UNCP and Ratliffe had 13. Akia Pruitt was held to five points, but led all players with 10 rebounds. Tyrell Kirk had six assists.
After UNCP’s big run, it led 57-48 and 61-52, but through key baskets by Angelo Sales Jr., who led the Wolves with 17 points, and TJ Brown, who had 16, the Wolves closed to 69-67 with 33 seconds left.
Ratliffe and Tyrell Kirk each missed the front end of one-and-ones for UNCP, but offensive rebounds by Tyrell Kirk and Bullard extended their possession. Strother hit two free throws for a 71-67 lead, then after a Sales basket made it 71-69 Ratliffe hit two more to seal the win.
The Braves had 15 offensive rebounds in the game, with 10 in the second half, and scored 19 second-chance points.
“That’s huge for us,” Jones said. “We preach rebounding, and we got outrebounded in the last game, and our goal was to go plus-10 in this game; we went plus-4. The guys really showed a lot of heart in rebounding, and that’s really huge for our mentality on offense.”
UNCP used a 17-6 run early to take a 20-12 lead before Newberry stormed back with a 10-0 run for a 22-20 advantage with 6:16 left in the first half.
The Braves took a 27-22 lead before the Wolves finished the half with the final two baskets, including a Brown floater with a second left, for a 30-29 halftime lead.
UNCP’s two wins helped the PBC to split the challenge with the SAC at 2-2. Catawba and Newberry each won their game over Francis Marion in the two-day event.
The Braves return to action Tuesday at Winston-Salem State at 7:30 p.m., before playing Tusculum and Queens in Charlotte next Saturday and Sunday in the Queens Tournament.
Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1989 or by email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.