It was a foreshadowing of what could be a steep learning curve should the Braves intend on making it back to the NCAA Tournament after failing down the stretch and missing out on the postseason during last year’s 17-12 finish.
“Our main focus is to come together and keep getting stronger as a team,” Brackett said after scoring a game-high 28 points despite fouling out in the final minute. “Rebounding and execution is key. Our talent will take care of itself and I don’t see no problem with us getting back to the tournament.”
UNCP coach Ben Miller said it may take awhile for his young team to find its groove, but the guard-heavy Braves did show signs of promise in a 89-86 home exhibition loss to Athletes in Action, a Christian-based sports ministry with several former college all-stars and professionals in the starting five.
UNCP has never beaten AIA in four all-time meetings and Miller compares the opposition’s ability to execute to that of another well-known adversary the Braves battled during last season’s exhibition slate.
“These guys are every bit as hard to guard as (North) Carolina,” Miller said. “Usually on the scouting report, you’ve got two or three guys with stars by their names that can shoot. These guys had seven or eight. That makes it pretty tough.”
Quamain Rose scored 21 points for the Braves in his first collegiate game after redshirting last season as a true freshman. Rose made several contested jumpers in the first half and showcased why UNCP coaches wanted the backcourt star out of Whiteville with coast-to-coast dribbling at breakneck speeds.
Brackett, a senior three-year starter from Florence with several accolades under his belt, took Rose under his wing last season and stressed the importance of keeping things under control in the Braves’ transition offense.
“Since this is my last season, I’m really trying to take on the responsibility of helping the younger guys,” Brackett said.
Rose, who will likely split time this season with point guard Griffin Pittman, was satisfied with his debut.
“My last game was in the second round of the playoffs in high school two years ago,” Rose said. “So, I was a little nervous. I really just tried to play my best defensively and run the floor as fast as I could.”
Despite being out-rebounded and allowing AIA to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor, the Braves had chances to win but squandered two sizable leads after intermission.
UNCP stretched a halftime lead to double digits two minutes into the second half before AIA countered with an 11-0 run — highlighted by Paul Campbell’s alley-oop — to regain the lead. The Braves shook off the burst and led by as many as eight with 11:45 left, but AIA never relinquished its lead after Brandon Adams put his team ahead to stay with just over five minutes remaining.
“Their experience showed in the second half,” Miller said. “We did some things well, but we’ve had guys out there playing their first game in college and there’s no substitute for experience.”
The Braves depart for Palo Alto, Calif. next weekend to begin a nine-day road trip that includes exhibition games against Stanford and San Francisco and a Disney-based tournament in Anaheim that tips off the regular season. UNCP won’t return to the English E. Jones Center until Nov. 29 for the home opener against Barber Scotia.
“We’re going out there and playing against some really good teams,” Miller said. “You can schedule some lesser opponents and get some wins in the preseason, but it’s better for us to play against really good competition. Competition similar to what we’d see in the Peach Belt Conference.”
Brackett expects the Braves to come back from California, a voyage that includes two off days at Disneyland, closer as a team.
“I know everyone’s looking forward to it and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “It’ll make us a tight-knit family, too.”