The UNCP men’s basketball team welcomed the University of South Carolina at Aiken to the Lumbee Guaranty Court on Feb 14.
The back-and-forth first half featured constant lead changes and offensive runs from both teams. Despite that, the Braves spread the love to one another much better in the second half on Valentine’s Day and outpaced the Pacers for an 86-74 comeback victory.
The win marked 16th of the last 17 home games from the Black and Gold. The Braves’ overall record was brought to 21-4 and the conference record to 17-2. The team won 27 of their last 29 contests against Peach Belt Conference competition and extended their latest win streak to seven.
“I thought it was the kind of game that we kind of needed and these guys know it,” head coach Ben Miller said. “We talked at halftime just about how they showed a lot of toughness this season in terms of being a defensive-minded team that even when shots aren’t falling, and it isn’t pretty, they just keep grinding.”
“We took better care of the ball and we got to the free throw line because we attacked much better in the second-half,” he said. The home team got off to a usual fast start and led by nearly double-digit points midway through the first-half.
The Pacers went go on a 12-4 run over the next eight minutes to tie the game up at 33-33. A layup off of a fast break with just under 30 ticks left on the clock gave the visitors a 40-38 advantage at the half. Coming out of the locker rooms, the two teams exchanged the lead on seven different occasions in the first six minutes of the second-half.
Following the 14-minute mark, the Pacers’ defense sprung a leak and the Braves’ defense tightened up. The Black and Gold used a 10-3 to finally put some distance between the two teams from across the state border.
“It’s great to have a balanced team,” Miller said. “We have tremendous leadership with theses guys, they kind of lead the charge with how we work everyday in practice.”
“Our young players are really coming along since first-semester, when they were a little tentative at times,” he said. “With every freshman, they’re trying to find their way a little bit, but everyday they get more and more confident, more assertive, more aggressive, trusting themselves and trusting each other, so it’s good to see them step up and have that confidence to make plays,” Miller said.
Freshman Tyrell Kirk led the team in scoring with 18 points, he also posted the first collegiate double-double of his young career. He came in second on the team in total rebounds with 10.
The first-year player was electric in the second-half of play as he recorded 11 of his 18 points and seven of his 10 rebounds coming out of the intermission.
“I just had to play hard and get open shots and my teammates found me in the rhythm and I just knocked them down,” Kirk said. Redshirt senior Nigel Grant once again got off to a hot start recording 11 of his 17 points in the first-half alone on route to his ninth double-double of the season. He also corralled a career-high 13 rebounds to lead the team.
The Braves had three other players record double-digit points. Senior Brandon Watts came in third in scoring with 13 points and he went 9-11 from the free throw line. Junior James Murray-Boyles had 10 points and led the team with four assists.
Sophomore Akia Pruitt was fourth on the team in scoring with a dozen points and fell one rebound shy of a double-double with nine.
“The mindset is to just stay aggressive and I just try to stay aggressive at the beginning of the game because I already know the bigs are kind of slower than me, so I was just trying to stay aggressive and keep them on their toes,” Grant said.