After being blown out by 32 points the previous night at last-place Francis Marion, the Canes held the Braves to their worst shooting output of the season and snapped UNCP’s 11-game home winning streak with a 65-58 decision. Georgia Southwestern’s win put nine of the PBC’s 14 teams at .500 or better in conference play and snuffed out any momentum the Braves (10-6, 3-3) had earned with wins over Augusta State and Columbus State heading into a pivotal four-game road trip.
“It starts with effort and Georgia Southwestern wanted it more than we did,” UNCP coach Ben Miller said from his office Monday. “If you don’t take care of the effort part of the equation, the rest doesn’t mean a whole lot. Execution … rebounding … defense … all that starts with effort.
“In a conference as competitive as the Peach Belt, you won’t win without effort.”
The Braves turned it up offensively and won with intensity on defense during Saturday’s game against Columbus State, but didn’t come out with the same spark less than 24 hours later. UNCP leads the league in rebounding and pulled down four more boards than the Canes, but Miller attributed that to the bevy of missed shots from his guards.
He also blamed his team’s lack of aggression and effort on not being ready to play.
“They got physical and we didn’t,” Miller said. “Give them all the credit. Coach (Mike) Leeder and his players were able to rise up to the challenge and take it from us. It was gut check time for them, but we didn’t play like it was gut check time for us.”
During the home winning streak that stretched back to last season, the Braves often dominated the opposition in second-chance points and forced turnovers in key situations on 50-50 hustle plays. The lack of momentum-shifting possessions in Sunday’s game led to a sloppy showing on offense and a surprising setback to a team that had lost four straight coming in.
UNCP’s opportunity at getting a leg up in the Eastern Division at 4-2 was squandered with a disappointing performance.
“In this league, you aren’t going to get to every loose ball, but you better get to most of them if you want to win,” Miller said. “Getting to those plays doesn’t guarantee victory, but I can assure you that being out-hustled and out-worked guarantees a loss.”
Beginning Wednesday at Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., UNCP plays the first of four consecutive road games against quality teams including trips to 2012 NCAA runner-up Montevallo and perennial power Augusta State.
One would have to go back to December 2011 — Flagler and Armstrong Atlantic — to find consecutive wins away from home on the same trip for the Braves. UNCP has lost seven of its last eight games on the road in conference, including both contests this season.
“We’ve really only had three true road games so far, but the goals are still 10 feet and the courts the same size,” Miller said. “Playing away from home shouldn’t make a heck of a lot of difference if we’re serious about competing for championships. We have to win these kind of games.”
During UNCP’s run to the NCAA Tournament two years ago, the Braves won 5-of-9 road conference games leading up to a multi-win weekend run at the PBC Tournament in Aiken, S.C. The Braves went 18-11 that season prior to selection night to secure an at-large berth in the field of 64. UNCP is currently eight wins shy of that attractive total with 13 games left in the regular season.
Getting back to the Big Dance for only the second time in school history is the ultimate challenge.
“All of our goals are still within reach and while playing on the road is a little tougher, basketball is a grind just like life,” Miller said. “The good news for us is we have another opportunity to play well Wednesday against Lander. You can’t sit and sulk after a loss in this league. You have to forget about it and move on.”
Shahmel Brackett’s 22nd birthday didn’t go as planned Sunday as he spent the afternoon on the bench in a protective boot during UNCP’s loss to Georgia Southwestern. Brackett re-aggravated a previous ankle injury in the first half of Saturday’s win over Columbus State and did not return.
Brackett is the team’s leading scorer this season at just under 15 points per game.
“Shahmel’s very doubtful for Wednesday’s game, but we hope to have him back by the weekend,” Miller said.
Miller felt his team started to press at the offensive end without Brackett on Sunday, hoisting up several ill-advised shots too early in the shot clock. The Braves missed 12-of-14 shots from long range and only managed a single fast-break bucket in front of the third-largest home crowd of the season.
“Every team has to deal with injuries,” Miller said. “It’s important for our guys to find other ways to impact the game when Shahmel’s on the bench. They don’t have to make up for his scoring, but the effort at the defensive end must not take a hit.”