The UNCP men’s basketball team has struggled as of late down the final stretch of the regular season as they get ready to embark on a postseason journey that they hope will be deeper than last year’s semifinal exit from the NCAA Southeast Regional Tournament to No.7 ranked Queens.
After a red-hot start to the season winning 16 of their first 19 games dating back to the PBC/SAC challenge back in early November, the Braves have struggled to put together lengthy winning streaks and like they did in the first half of the season when they as many as eight games without the bitter taste of defeat.
They were undefeated for nearly two months before they were upset by the underwhelming North Georgia Bobcats on Jan.12. The Black and Gold would put together a short win streak of three games in a row before they lost their first home game in nearly two games when they suffered a narrow 88-90 defeat at the hands of USC Aiken on Jan.23.
The Braves would go on yet another three-game winning streak that was short-lived when they were upset by yet another lowly team in the Lander Bearcats on Feb.6 80-88. Since then they have struggled to stack wins with any consistency, winning just two of their last five games and have lost back to back games for the first time this season.
The team has particularly struggled in late game situations when they don’t have huge leads to lean on and the games have come down to the wire. All six of their losses have come by a combined 25 points and they are 3-4 in games that are decided by five points or less.
Head Coach Ben Miller believes that young talented team blessed with tremendous depth has missed some of the crunch time leadership and play of program legends Nigel Grant and Brandon Watts who were almost always the players that the team turned to when they needed a game-changing and win clinching play on either offense or defense last season.
“I think guys that in years past were maybe third or fourth option are now up into that go-to type guy role and finding our stride, getting our rhythm in those late-game situations has been a process. I think we’re getting closer to some more continuity there and guys getting more comfortable with those bigger roles,” said Miller.
It often seems that every team that the Braves play are giving it their all in an effort to try to dethrone the reigning conference champions, but that is the price of success when one sits on the top of the hill like the Braves have for the past few years. They’ve gone from the predator to the prey in the Peach Belt every team has been gunning for them all year.
“I remember what that was like when we first got here trying to compete against Augusta and [USC] Aiken. We were the hunters. Now we’re the ones that people are hunting…People tend to get really excited to play the Braves and their level of play, their shooting, everything seems to elevate so we got to match that intensity and be ready every night in a league like this,” said Miller.
Heading into the conference tournament next week Miller believes that the team has to shake the notion that they might have peaked too early like they have in past seasons and refocus on their core values which are rebounding, playing stout team defense, dominating in the paint and committing to not turning the ball over.
“I do think our best basketball is still coming and hopefully we’ll be peaking at the right time…I know with this group we have not reached our potential yet but if we can get a little closer here these last few regular season games and really hit our stride going into the postseason it could be an exciting March,” said Miller.
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