LAURINBURG — As frustration was starting to mount for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team late in the third quarter with penalties piling up and the defense struggling to get off the field, it took one play to put the air back into the team at Pate Stadium on Saturday.
The play, a Khalil Vance 41-yard interception return for a touchdown, started a snowball effect for the No. 21 Braves who closed out its 43-20 victory over Kentucky Wesleyan with 24 unanswered points.
UNCP (6-1) held onto a 22-20 lead with less than a minute left in the third quarter and had previously given the Panthers a first down with an unsportsmanlike penalty a few play earlier on the drive. From midfield, the Braves’ defense dialed up a blitz and Tajai Liles hit Kentucky Wesleyan (1-6) quarterback DaMarcus Smith as he threw and Vance came away with the misdirected pass and returned it for a touchdown.
“Coach told me and Q-ball (Marquin Hill) to go out there and make a play and fortunately he called a play where I wrap around outside and I made the play,” Vance said. “Our team needed that, we needed this win after everything we’ve gone through. It was just huge.”
The win was an emotional one for the program with the effects of Hurricane Matthew on the local area that led to the team practicing at Wingate University on Wednesday through Friday, and having to play a Scotland High School due to accessibility concerns in Robeson County. With the adversity of the situation, UNCP football coach Shane Richardson said the win was for more than just his team.
“I just can’t say enough about our team and being able to overcome a tough week,”Richardson said. “I’m really proud of our team coming through today to go out and play a football game in honor of the circumstances and for the people of Robeson County and this area. We kind of wanted to dedicate this game to them.”
The interception was a refresher for the defense that surrendered touchdowns on three of the previous four drives and gave new life to the special teams and offense.
“We needed a play, Matt Davis’ field goal helped, but that was the play we needed to get over the hump,” Vance said. “We’ve faced adversity all year and we’ve always responded to it well, but I was glad to step up and make the play.
Following the interception return for a touchdown, the next offensive possession for UNCP lasted one-play as quarterback Patrick O’Brien hit wide receiver B.J. Bunn for an 88-yard touchdown pass on play action that left Bunn wide open up the middle of the field. During Kentucky Wesleyan’s next series, the Braves defense forced a three-and-out and blocked the punt with Rick Mack returning the block 13 yards for a touchdown.
“We had some emotional ups and downs throughout the game,” Richardson said. “It really started to get some guys going. … Our guys fed off that and it was a great moment.”
Bunn came 15 yards short of his program record of receiving yards in a game with 205 against the Panthers on Saturday, and hauled in both touchdown passes that O’Brien tossed in the game. He remains the only receiver in school history to have a 200-yard receiving game, and he also broke the school record for receiving yards in a game last week at Lenoir-Rhyne.
His first score came in the second quarter after Tra Chandler took the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown en route to the Braves jumping ahead 16-0.
After the Braves took a 19-7 halftime lead, the Panthers responded with scores coming on big passing plays on their first two drives of the third quarter to go up 20-19. Smith hit Travion Tucker for 37 yards on the first touchdown and then with Keelan Cole on the second from 42 yards out.
While the secondary gave up the big plays, Vance and the rest of the defensive line stood tall with eight total sacks.
UNCP will host Catawba next Saturday for homecoming.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.