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Braves establish themselves with season of firsts
By Nick Phillips
Walking off the court March 12 after being ousted in the opening game of the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Tournament, the UNCP men's basketball team was obviously disappointed.
Facing off against Peach Belt Conference foe Augusta State for the fourth time in the 2010-2011 season, the Braves played their best game out of the four and still came up empty handed by a 80-66 score that was not indicative of the game's closeness.
But in the following weeks, the UNCP team has been able to look back at their season and see a boatload of positives to take moving forward.
For starters, the Braves finished the season with an 18-12 record overall, the most wins in a single season since UNCP joined the NCAA Division II ranks prior to the 1992-1993 year.
In a magical first week in March, UNCP saw themselves in the PBC Tournament for the first time since 2008, where they knocked off USC Aiken in Aiken, S.C., for their first PBC Tournament win since 2006.
The Braves followed that up days later, pulling out a one-point win over Georgia Southwestern that sent them to their first PBC Championship game in school history before they were slowed by Augusta State.
All this was accomplished after UNCP was picked to finish 13th, dead last, in conference play in the Preseason Coaches' Poll.
"We are really proud of our guys who stepped up and achieved a lot of firsts at our university for the basketball program," head coach Ben Miller said.
The Braves jumped out of the gates, winning five of their first six games before hitting the New Year with an 8-2 mark.
Included in that span was the Braves' win at Lander, only the third win alltime in PBC road openers for the Braves, while they also snapped a 14-game losing streak at Lander.
The Braves were 4-1 at home in November and December, with their only blemish a three-point loss to PBC foe Clayton State. "I think we surprised some teams around the league (early). Once we got into January and February we weren't sneaking up on people anymore," Miller said.
January didn't start off as hoped, a four-point home loss to Francis Marion, but the Braves made their first big splash when they upset then-No. 10-ranked USC Aiken 78-72 in Aiken.
No longer sneaking up, the Braves went 5-7 in their next 12 games with separate three- and four-game losing streaks.
But in crunch time, the Braves came up with backto- back blowout wins, at home on Senior Night and on the road at Flagler's Senior Day, to secure themselves a spot in the PBC Tournament.
Miller believes that the two wins helped springboard the UNCP run in the PBC Tournament.
"The excitement of winning and getting in maybe gave us a psychological edge because our backs had been against the wall, and our guys stepped up and responded," Miller said.
"It was fun to see us playing our best late in the season," he added.
With the combination of their late season play and the loss of only two players, Chris Hargrove and Lamar Cross, the Braves won't find themselves at the bottom of the pack next season.
"Instead of being the hunter, you become the hunted. We are comfortable in that position," Miller said.
With 12 returning players either juniors or seniors, the 2011-2012 Braves will have the most experience of any Miller team to date. "There's no substitute for experience," Miller said, referring to the lessons and knowledge his team gained in the PBC Tournament and the NCAA game.
That's not to say the seniors won't be missed. "I'd like to thank the seniors, Chris and Lemar, for being great teammates and setting the standard," Miller said.
Hargrove's 11.2 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game averages will have to be filled in, as well as the 28.3 minutes per game he averaged, but Miller said it's the little things that Hargrove brought that shone brightest.
"I don't know if I've ever coached a tougher kid," Miller said of Hargrove, speaking of Hargrove's knack for wanting the key defensive assignment, giving up his body and diving for a loose ball or crashing to the floor after going hard to the basket on offense.
For Cross, while his name may not have ended at the top of the stat sheet often, he will also be missed in the locker room.
"Whether he was playing a few minutes here or there or a bigger role in some games, his attitude never changed and he was a great teammate. That's a great example for everyone," Miller said of Cross.
Those players who are coming back are already pushing forward to next season.
"They are motivated to get back to work. We tried to get them to take some time off after the NCAA tournament and half of them were in the gym that Monday or in the weight room, on their own, before we scheduled any workouts," Miller said.
Don't expect the 2011- 2012 team to have any letdowns. In fact, look for them to go farther and accomplish more as they continue to realize goals.