PEMBROKE — Quamain Rose knows when he steps on the court at Queens University in Charlotte on Saturday for the start of the NCAA Tournament, he could be playing his final game for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team.
The sixth-year senior is intent on not letting that happen. And he feels the team around him is capable of backing it up.
“Being that I’ve been in the tournament before, I know what it feels like to be there and be out,” said Rose, who, along with junior Brandon Watts, has experienced the thrill of winning an NCAA Tournament game and the sudden end after a loss.
“I don’t want to feel that feeling this time around. I have to play every game like it’s my last game. It’s been a long ride and I don’t want it to end this weekend. I’m really looking forward to seeing how far we can go.”
For Rose, this time is different. The 2014-15 team didn’t enter the tournament brimming with confidence like this year’s bunch. This year’s squad made program history by earning a share of the Peach Belt Conference regular-season title before winning the PBC Tournament this past weekend.
“I feel like we’re more dialed in this time around,” he said. “Everybody is confident, very confident. We’re never out of the game. We never stop fighting, no matter how many points we’re down by or the situation. That’s what is so special about this team — we never quit.”
The Braves will begin their quest for a national title Saturday when they suit up against Limestone (26-5) at noon.
Like Rose, Watts notices a different level of confidence surrounding the Braves this postseason. With five players averaging double figures, Watts feels the team’s depth is a key moving forward.
“I think this year, compared to last time, we have the best depth of anyone coming into the tournament,” the junior guard said. “We’re really 15 (players) deep, but the nine that play the most minutes have an argument to start.”
UNCP head coach Ben Miller said, because of the team’s success, the Braves won’t be happy with just making an appearance in the tournament.
“This team is unique because we had a chance to make history during the regular season and postseason,” said Miller, who has led the Braves to four NCAA Tournament appearances over the past six years.
“I think, maybe, there have been times when we made it to the tournament and we were just happy to be here. I think there’s a little different mindset with this bunch.”
Miller credits the success to a “unique bond” throughout the team.
“We have some super seniors, along with some freshman and new guys that add a lot of energy and talent to the bunch,” he said. “They’ve really meshed well and I think the leadership has really evolved with this team over the course of the year. They like to compete on the court, but off the court they’re goofy and college kids that like to have a lot of fun.”
It starts with the upperclassmen. Along with Rose, seniors Alex Bradley and Mike Smith have provided ample leadership for the squad.
For Bradley, it’s an experience he’s been waiting on for five years.
“This is the ultimate goal: to go to the NCAA Tournament and have a chance to win a national championship,” he said. “Our togetherness and competitiveness is what I love about this team.”
Smith said making the NCAA Tournament is the “biggest experience of my life so far.”
“This is the best team I’ve been on and the best coaching staff I’ve had,” Smith said. “I love these guys because we have chemistry on and off the court. I feel like we’ve come this far so there’s no need to stop now.”
Among the nine players in the Braves’ normal rotation, each pointed to togetherness and competitiveness as the keys to the team’s success this season.
“Everyone just clicks,” said Nigel Grant, a redshirt junior in his first season with UNCP. “It’s just so fun to play for this team.”
The forward from Brooklyn, N.Y., was voted a captain in the preseason and has helped the Braves maintain a competitive edge throughout the year as an enforcer in the post.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” he said. “The coaches expect a lot from us — the seniors and the juniors. I just want to win every time I touch the floor and I know (my teammates) want to win. If I bring that bulldog mentality and that tough-guy mentality, then I know they’ll bring it.”
Winners of 10 consecutive games, the Braves are playing their best basketball of the season. Over those 10 games, UNCP has improved its defensive field goal percentage to 41 percent and dominated the glass with a plus-12 rebounding margin.
“I think they bought in with trying to rebound and defend at a championship level,” Miller said of his team. “I think we’re good enough to have a chance to keep playing.”
Miller is hoping Brave Nation will also have an impact this weekend.
“As excited as we were for the team to be going to Charlotte, I think we were all really excited for our fans because it’s a little different than driving seven hours to Tennessee,” he said. “Having a chance to go just a couple of hours down the road is really special for our fans, who I think are the best in the Peach Belt Conference and some of the best in the country at our level. We’re not just playing for us; we’re playing for all of Brave Nation.”
When asked what he would tell his team prior to stepping on the court Saturday, Miller said he’ll remind the Braves to continue doing the things that helped them make program history.
“It’s like dancing with the date you brought,” he said. “Those things are what separates good from great teams. This team has a chance to be special. They’ve already done special things and I know they’re motivated to keep playing as long as we can.”
For Watts, the mindset is simple.
“It’s win or go home,” he said. “So, we have to win.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.