Though steady in the paint as a starter each of the last three seasons, UNCP coach Ben Miller hopes George Blakeney’s recent 19-point, 16-rebound effort against St. Andrews is the kind of stat stuffer he can expect every night this season from his senior center.
Blakeney’s consistency down low is paramount — especially during the upcoming Peach Belt Conference slate — in the Braves' quest toward a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"He's in the best shape of his life and that's a testament to how hard he has worked," Miller said. "He can play longer stretches because of his conditioning (over the summer)."
On Thursday, UNCP’s biggest player had his last “first” steps onto the English E. Jones Center hardwood in the home opener against Barber-Scotia. Blakeney’s been a leading contributor to the program’s best three-year run in two decades and has provided the Braves with a security blanket underneath the basket they’ve sorely missed during a wretched stretch in the ultra-competitive Peach Belt Conference since the turn of the millennium.
"He's critical for us because he's such a big presence around the basket," Miller said. "We really stress having a presence down there and George provides that."
Blakeney’s 16 boards against St. Andrews last weekend was one off a career-high he ironically set a year ago against the Knights. Becoming a more formidable force at the defensive end is something the UNCP coaching staff has stressed to the 6-foot-9, 225-pound Tarboro native throughout his career.
With improved attention to detail during the off-season, toughness is now one of Blakeney's strengths. He opened the second half Thursday night with a thunderous two-hand slam and followed that up with consecutive swats at the other end. You know what you're getting with a guy that has started 80 games at the five position since his freshman season, second only to All-American guard Shahmel Brackett.
The two standouts, along with senior K.J. Cooper, have combined to lead the program to new heights as members of Miller's first recruiting class after he took over for Jason Tinsley. Miller went just 6-21 with another coach's players in 2008 but convinced the trio of prep seniors that times were changing in Pembroke.
"Our relationship clicked throughout the recruiting process," Blakeney said. "I think what kind of sealed it for me was when I saw all the other guys Coach (Miller) was recruiting like Shahmel. I felt like me and someone like that could really do some damage."
During that following season, UNCP's turnaround began with nine wins and several close defeats.
As a sophomore — the Braves' first-ever NCAA Tournament season — Blakeney averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds before regressing as a junior. His production dipped in the post because he took a break from being the aggressive big man Braves fans have come to expect. Over the last five games this season, however, he’s returned to man-child form reaching double-digit scoring totals in each contest to go along with 49 total rebounds.
"Getting quicker and staying in shape, that's all it takes," Blakeney said. "Being in the gym every day and getting that repetition is important."
Blakeney and the Braves continue a three-game home stand today against St. Andrews at 2 p.m.