The Braves faced off against the Patriots of Francis Marion University on Feb. 21 in the first of the final two-game home stand. This marked the closeout of the regular season before the postseason kickoff.
The Black and Gold returned to Pembroke after dropping its last road game of the season to Clayton State just a few days earlier. The Braves’ second-half defense shined on “Neon Night” to earn a 66-60 victory.
This marked the 21st victory for the Black and Gold in their last 22 home games. UNCP’s overall record was brought to 22-5 and their conference record to 18-3.
“Offensively, we started off the game with fantastic energy and our defense led to offense and the offense came a little bit easier,” head coach Ben Miller said. “[The defense] sat in that zone.”
Coach Miller went on to say: “The second-half we got a little stagnant early, but theses guys kept grinding and we were able to win it on the defensive end.”
The home team shot an astounding 61 percent from the field in the first nine minutes of play. The Black and Gold went 11-18 and built a 26-7 advantage before the Patriots could get a good sweat going.
The visitors would cut the Braves’ lead to 10 with just under four minutes left in the first period. But the Black and Gold led 39-26 heading into the locker room.
“Honestly this is the best defensive team we’ve had in 10 years,” Miller said. “I think we’re statistically top 10 in the country in defensive field goal percentage and blocked shots.”
“We’ve had a couple games where the intensity wasn’t quite what it should’ve been, but they’ve always responded and rededicated themselves in those situations,” Miller said. A three pointer from senior Nigel Grant gave the Braves their second-largest lead of the day 42-26.
Francis Marion responded with a 17-3 run for several minutes after and brought the contest within one possession. Even though the Patriots tied the game with just under six minutes left to play, they would go on to miss 10 of their final 11 shots.
Freshman David Strother hit a 3-pointer with just over a minute left. He also got a pair of free throws in the final 30 seconds of the game, which put the Braves ahead for what proved to be a game-winning point margin.
“I felt like it was going to go in and I’ve been putting up extra shots all this week, so I guess it paid off,” Strother said. Junior James Murray-Boyles led the team in scoring going 9-13 for 18 points, all from the field.
Almost all of Murray-Boyles’ eight second-half points appeared to come when his team needed them most. The Patriots went on a relentless rally, which the Braves had to fend off. Grant came in second in scoring with 13 points.
He also led the team in rebounds, hauling in seven. While the Lumberton native did not come in third in scoring, Strother corralled six rebounds, provided five assists, snatched a pair of steals and scored five of his eight points in the final two minutes of the game.
“I don’t really feel like I am being called on, I just feel like that’s what my team needs me to do every night,” Murray-Boyles said. “Coming off the bench and being aggressive, so that’s what I try to do every game.”