The UNCP men’s basketball team won their second-straight Peach Belt Conference tournament and a second consecutive share of the regular season title.
The Braves headed to Harrogate, Tenn. to take part in the NCAA Southeast Regional tournament at the B. Frank “Tex” Turner Arena located at Lincoln University on March 10. In the quarterfinals, the Braves faced off against the Patriots of Francis Marion University, the same team they had blown out in the semifinals of the PBC tournament.
Except this time around, it went down to the wire instead of riding a second half surge to victory. In the tightly contested game, neither team was able to surmount a double-digit lead. It took a long range, 25-foot 3-pointer from freshman David Strother.
As time expired, Strother secured the 75-72 victory to send the Black and Gold to the semifinals.
“I’m glad David has the kind of guts to take that shot,” head coach Ben Miller said. “Actually, I’m trying to call a time out, I didn’t know if we could get a good look, but David had the confidence, and nobody works as hard on their game as David.”
“I don’t know if he’s practiced that shot a lot, but I’m happy for him because he had the gut to take it,” he said. “He called it, after it left his hand, he said ‘game time.’” The triumph improved the Braves’ overall record to 27-5, matching a 27-year-old program record with the win.
The last second buzzer beater from the first-year player wasn’t the only reason the Black and Gold found themselves victorious on the day. The team benefited from 26 points scored as result from turnovers forced by a tenacious defense.
“[UNCP] were just gritty enough and offense was frustrating at times,” Miller said. “We got off to such a quick start, they made some adjustments they changed up their zone.”
“They did some things with their zone that we hadn’t seen all year,” he said. “This was the fourth time we played them, threw the kitchen sink at us, but guys kept grinding, found ways to get good shots, but more importantly we got defensive stops when we needed them.”
Even though the Braves shot less than 50 percent from the field in the first half, they got out to an early 17-8 lead in under seven minutes into the game. The early advantage did not last long as the Patriots clawed back into to contentions with a 7-0 run.
The Patriots were even able to take a four-point lead into halftime with a 40-36 advantage. Francis Marion extended their lead to seven points inside the opening half-minute of the second stanza. The resilient and persistent Braves tied the game just five short minutes later.
Before Strother hit his victory clinching jumper, he sunk one just before it. The shot gave the team a 72-66 lead with just over a minute and a half to play. However, an untimely turnover that resulted from an ill-advised UNCP offensive foul, allowed the Patriots to knot up the score moments before the buzzer beater was made.
“When [the Patriot player] first hit that shot I saw everybody on their team and they weren’t on to the next play because they were still celebrating,” Strother said. “So, I just got the ball out fast and [coach Miller] was actually about to call timeout and I just took the shot.”
Junior James Murray-Boyles, the heralded sixth man, came off the bench and led the team in scoring with 15 points. The record marked the highest point total of the six Braves to record double-digit points in the contest.
Freshman Tyrell Kirk led the team in assists with seven to go along with 11 points. Sophomore Akia Pruitt was perfect shooting from the field making all six of his shot attempts.
“They tried a couple of new things, but I guess we stuck to what we had known all year and it kind of worked out for us,” senior Brandon Watts said about having to face Francis Marion for the fourth and final time this season.