PEMBROKE — Eldon Miller saw what was coming.
A volunteer assistant for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team, Miller, head coach Ben Miller’s father, warned the team of a letdown coming into Saturday’s Peach Belt Conference quarterfinal game against North Georgia.
The Braves reached the mountaintop on Wednesday by claiming a share of the PBC regular season title. On Saturday, UNCP had to begin a new climb in hopes of winning a postseason championship.
Despite a slow start, and limp to the finish, UNCP survived against the relentless Nighthawks, earning an 87-83 win to secure a berth in the semifinal round next weekend against Lander.
“Dad called it,” Ben Miller said following the victory. “He said this wasn’t going to be an easy game to play, just coming off the emotion and energy that was expended on Wednesday and probably a little celebration on everyone’s part, too.
“It’s a quick turnaround to come back and play a North Georgia team that’s fighting for its life, and they’re really talented. They played extremely hard.”
The hangover of reaching the pinnacle on Wednesday appeared to filter into Saturday as the Braves fell behind by 13 points in the first half. UNCP came back to life behind the play of Brandon Watts and James Murray-Boyles, cutting the deficit to one at the break before a dominant 12-minute run in the second half.
“I think we were just so excited from Wednesday that we kind of forgot that we still had to play our hardest (against North Georgia),” said Watts, who finished with a team-best 21 points and 11 rebounds.
“Toward the end of the first half we made that little flurry and I think that’s where we really woke up as a team and knew what we had to do to win this game.”
Watts carried the load early in the second half to key UNCP’s comeback, scoring 11 quick points — including the Braves’ only two 3-point baskets of the game — to ignite a 23-5 run capped with a nifty layup by Micah Kinsey that gave UNCP an 18-point lead with 8:41 left to play.
“He’s (Watts) playing at an all-conference level,” Miller said of the junior from Wesley Chapel. “He’s not scoring as many points average-wise as he was last year, but I hope the coaches that are voting for all-conference understand that we have a very balanced team. I think he’s playing great basketball.”
The Braves held North Georgia (15-14) without a basket for nearly 10 minutes in the second half before Tyler Dominy ended the drought with a corner 3-pointer, igniting a 32-18 run over the final eight minutes to make things interesting. The Nighthawks earned 16 steals, with UNCP committing 21 turnovers.
“Fortunately, we played a little better in the second half, but they didn’t quit,” Miller said. “They had a bunch of steals and made it tough on us. This time of year, that’s what you expect.”
The Braves (22-7) had 12 turnovers and 14 field goals in the first half, but Murray-Boyles sparked a 7-0 spurt before the break with five-straight points to bring UNCP within one point, 39-38, at the half. The sophomore reserve finished with 20 points and eight rebounds.
While Miller was pleased with Murray-Boyles’ offensive numbers, it was the sophomore’s improvement on the defensive end that impressed the Braves coach on Saturday.
“JB is a developing young player and the sky’s the limit for him,” Miller said. “I think he’s really made an effort defensively. His defense is really coming together.”
It’s something Murray-Boyles has been focusing on over the course of his second season in Pembroke.
“Coach (Miller) knows I can score, but he’s been challenging me to be a better defender,” Murray-Boyles said. “I’ve really been working on that.”
While the Braves had trouble taking care of the ball at times, they didn’t struggle in the rebounding department, finishing with a 50-31 advantage on the boards, including 20 offensive rebounds that helped the hosts score 31 second-chance points.
UNCP also hit 25-of-36 free throws, including several in the closing minutes to keep North Georgia, which trimmed the lead to three points in the final minute, at bay.
Nigel Grant scored all 10 of his points in the second half. Akia Pruitt and Alex Bradley also tallied 10 points each for the Braves.
Denzell Hosch finished with a game-high 24 points for North Georgia, knocking down six 3-pointers. Dominy tallied 20 points for the Nighthawks.
For Watts, the game was a reminder of how tough things can be in postseason play.
“Every step is going to be hard,” he said. “Today, we played a great team. Next week, we’ll play a better team. All we have to do is play our game and I think we can handle anybody in (our) conference.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.