RALEIGH — Mark Gottfried brushed back his hair and flashed a smile in the bowels of Reynolds Coliseum Wednesday night while congratulating Ben Miller on a well-played exhibition game outside the visiting locker room.
Impressed by the fight he had seen from the Division II Braves following N.C. State’s 96-85 win, the Wolfpack’s third-year coach made it a point to applaud UNCP’s resiliency and togetherness shown throughout the contest.
“You guys didn’t make things very easy for us,” Gottfried said to Miller. “Y’all are going to have a pretty good team.”
Intent on getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years and competing for the school’s first Peach Belt Conference title, Griffin Pittman helped usher in a new era for UNCP basketball with an outing to remember in the Braves’ first game without longtime torchbearers Shahmel Brackett and George Blakeney.
After suffering through a disappointing sophomore season that featured a decrease in minutes amid a prolonged slump, Griffin stayed on campus this summer to better his ball-handling and jumpshot. With renewed focus, the junior guard held his own against McDonald’s All-Americans Tyler Lewis and Cat Barber in Raleigh, tallying 21 of his career-high 23 points in a furious second half.
N.C. State led by as many as 12 after intermission, but couldn’t pull away from the pesky Braves until the final three minutes.
“Any day you can come in and and play well against guards from the best conference in the country, it does wonders for your confidence,” Pittman said. “It makes you feel like you’re a high major level guy. No disrespect to the Peach Belt, but it helps you know you can play with anyone in the country.”
Pittman provided the Braves with a transition threat the coaching staff thought they would sorely miss without Brackett on the wing. Alongside Quamain Rose in the backcourt, Pittman still has the distribute-first, shoot-second mindset but that will soon shift as a veteran.
He came off the bench against the Wolfpack, but Pittman’s an interchangeable piece of a puzzle Miller plans on testing out several times during UNCP’s exhibition slate which resumes Friday in Chapel Hill.
“We’re a very deep team with seven or eight potential starters and Griffin’s handled us mixing up the lineup great,” Miller said. “Obviously he played his butt off today. It’s credit to how hard he has worked. He’s back physically and mentally and he really responded tonight.
“There’s a reason why he’s been voted our team captain.”
Picked to finish 10th in the new-look ACC this preseason, N.C. State appears to have plenty of ammunition available in its chamber this fall despite losing all five starters including main scoring options C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell.
Lewis started only two games last season, but his production at point guard will increase substantially as the Wolfpack’s full-time facilitator. Lewis handed out 15 assists against the Braves, a handful to sophomore T.J. Warren who filled up the stat sheet for a game-high 26 points.
N.C. State jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the early going highlighted by alley-oop slams from Warren and 7-foot-1 center Jordan Vandenburg. Vandenburg left the game a few possessions with a high ankle sprain and did not return.
“The great thing about playing a game like this is getting exposed when you make mistakes on defense,” Miller said. “Against a lesser team, transition problems probably aren’t exposed as much. If we don’t get better on defense, the Tar Heels might score 150 on us.”
With a noticeable size and talent advantage at every position, N.C. State never trailed but did turn it over 23 times and was beaten on the glass, 44-33. The Braves seemed to have an answer for each Wolfpack scoring spurt throughout and weren’t discouraged by N.C. State’s early infatuation with going above the rim in transition.
“”We’ve got a team that’s going to compete no matter who we’re playing against,” Miller said. “I don’t think we have any guys that will ever give in or point fingers. We’ve got a group that’s together and that showed when we were able to battle back.”
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.