A perennial Division II power became the latest team laid to rest Saturday night.
“There’s just something about us being ready to play here,” UNCP senior All-American Shahmel Brackett said. “We always seem to come out with our best.”
For only the second time in a decade, UNCP upset 12th-ranked Augusta State, 70-64, to avoid a 1-3 start in conference play and capture one of the biggest wins in head coach Ben Miller’s five-year tenure.
“This one really means a lot to our seniors,” Miller said. “I’ve been really hard on those guys, maybe too hard, and I challenged them to be better leaders. They’re good leaders, but tonight they were great and I think we can expect that the rest of the way.”
George Blakeney’s swat of a D’Angelo Boyce’s floater with 52 seconds left solidified the Braves’ ascension towards the top of the PBC’s Eastern Division and sent the Jaguars to their third loss in four games. Ironically, UNCP’s (9-5, 2-2) home streak began last February with a 59-58 win over Augusta State.
“Our intensity picked up in the second half and that’s a credit to the guys wanting to win,” Miller said.
No stranger to big games against the Jaguars, Brackett scored a team-high 23 points and drained a career-high five 3-pointers. His long distance jumper with 4:54 remaining capped a 7-0 run that knotted the score at 58.
“Being here for four years, I like these rims,” Brackett said. “My shot falls here.”
UNCP grabbed its first lead of the game with just over nine minutes to play after freshman Quamain Rose found the bottom of the net on a fallaway 12-footer. It was the first momentum-changing possession in the game, one that crippled Augusta State the rest of the way.
Throughout the first half, Miller tinkered with his lineup hoping to find a rhythm on offense. Instead, Augusta State’s 2-3 zone caused consistent problems as the Braves sputtered from the perimeter and in the post, missing 21-of-29 shots. Despite the field goal discrepancy, UNCP trailed by just six at intermission.
At 2-2 in the PBC, Saturday’s victory came at the opportune time for the Braves who are trying to avoid a mid-season swoon to remain attractive to the NCAA selection committee. In 2010, 18 overall wins and a .500 mark in conference play was good enough to get in. UNCP is nine victories away from reaching that plateau.
“We’re giving the guys two days off before next Saturday’s game with Columbus State,” Miller said. “It’s really the last time this season that we’ll have a mini-break to rest some players and recover from injury. We’ll get back at it Tuesday.”
The Braves out-rebounded their opponent for the 10th straight game, pulling down 41 boards to the Jaguars’ 32. For the occasion, players sprinted to McDonald’s after the victory for a momentous milkshake.
“It’s one of three goals we have every game, win the rebounding battle,” UNCP assistant Ben Thompson said. “The guys get dessert if we are plus-1o in rebounding.”