The UNCP men’s basketball team kicked off their first contest of postseason action on Feb. 28. The Braves faced off against the Canes of Georgia Southwestern State University at Lumbee Guaranty Bank Court.
The Braves led for all but 30 seconds in their commanding 70-54 triumph over the seventh-seeded Canes in the quarterfinals of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament, their last home game of the season.
“Give them credit, the last month, [GSW] really had to grind and battle just to get into postseason play,” head coach Ben Miller said. “I thought they played really hard tonight, and there were stretches in the game where I thought they had a little more sense of urgency, but I thought as the game went on, especially in that second half, the guys really cranked up our defense even when it wasn’t easy offensively.”
“But that’s been kind of a trademark for this team, hanging out hat on defense,” Miller said. With the win, the Black and Gold matched a program record, 15th home court victory of the season.
Overall their record improved to 24-5. The win also improved the team’s PBC Tournament record, 8-4, since Miller took over at the helm.
“I think that we have confidence that we can go into a three-game tournament or back-toback Saturday and Sunday play,” the coach said.
“Last year we didn’t play our best in the first round,” Miller said. “I thought we played hard for stretches tonight but we got better and stronger as the tournament went on.”
It was a relatively close game until the Braves established their first double-digit lead of the game. With just under nine minutes left in the half, sophomore Akia Pruitt hit a ferocious dunk. The home team closed out the half with a 6-2 run and headed into the locker rooms with a 36-22 advantage. “
“Pop and coach were telling us to go out and play hard, just focus on defense and rebounding and I just let the offense come to me,” Pruitt said. Georgia Southwestern sank eight of their first 10 shots coming out of the intermission.
The Canes reduced the once 14-point deficit to a mere four with 10 minutes remaining in the contest. However, just when it seemed the Hurricanes were on the verge of a complete comeback, the Black and Gold went on a relentless 15-2 scoring flurry and finally put the game out of reach.
“They were really letting us play,” Miller said. “It was a physical game and I thought Akia and our adjusted to that physicality because they were trying to push them out of the paint and when they went up for shots in there they weren’t calling them.”
“There was a lot of contact, but Akia played through that, he rebounded through a lot of that physicality and just got better and better as the game went on,” he said.
Pruitt tied junior James Murray-Boyles for the team lead in scoring going 7-9 for 15 points. He also fell just one rebound shy of notching a double-double by corralling a game-high nine.
Sophomore Micah Kinsey had an impressive night in multiple facets of the game. He went 5-7 from the field for a dozen points, three rebounds and a pair of blocks and steals.
“They’re going to come thinking they can play harder than us and Pop said that we have to do what we can control and I can control my defense,” Kinsey said. “Like coach said, we have eight starters basically, so I’m coming off the bench, I’m thinking like I’m a starter and a starter gotta do what he gotta do,” Kinsey said.
“We’ve settled into a great rotation with guys like Micah and JB that are starters for us and they’d start anywhere else, but really the minutes are evenly distributed, Miller said. “With these guys you’re looking at two of the better defensive players maybe in the country.”
“With the pressure Micah can put on the ball, the way Akia changes the game around the basket, the way he can switch ball screens, our guards are bigger and stronger this year too so when we switch ball screens they can do the job in the post,” he said. “We have a lot of defensive versatility and length.”
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