Braves respond to Richards’ challenge, blow out Erskine

Chris Stiles Sports editor

			
				                                UNCP Athletics
                                UNC Pembroke men’s basketball coach Drew Richards coaches his team during a timeout during Wednesday’s home game against Fayetteville State.

UNCP Athletics

UNC Pembroke men’s basketball coach Drew Richards coaches his team during a timeout during Wednesday’s home game against Fayetteville State.

PEMBROKE — Drew Richards’ face could not have been more red.

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball coach had flipped his clipboard in the air and ranted to his team during the first media timeout of Saturday’s game against Erskine, after he had pulled all five starters just two minutes into the game.

“I felt like we weren’t respecting our opponent and we weren’t focused,” Richards said. “One of our mottos is we don’t ever want someone to outwork us, and I thought Erskine was playing harder than us. Until the day I stop coaching I will never be OK with that. That was the frustrating part was, it’s not like we hadn’t discussed it; we’d discussed it a lot.”

And the Braves responded emphatically, pulling away from that point to earn a 110-73 victory.

“I was happy with our response after, even in the first half, but especially in the second half, our response to that challenge,” Richards said.

Erskine (0-3, 0-1 Conference Carolinas) led 3-2 when Richards made the line-shift change and removed Tyrell Kirk, Jordan Ratliffe, Spencer Levi, Deon Barrien and Trenton McIntyre from the floor. The second unit took a 7-3 lead, with a layup by Jakari Gallon and a 3-pointer by Javonte Waverly, before the animated under-16 timeout.

“He just wants the best for us, so if he tells us that we’re playing soft or that the first four minutes aren’t what they should be, you just take it as it is and go from there,” Gallon said.

Erskine pulled to a 9-8 score before an 11-0 Braves run was fueled by Spencer Levi — often an energy source for UNCP throughout his Braves career — as the senior scored seven of the 11 points, with a layup, a dunk and three free throws. The Flying Fleet had three turnovers and took just one shot during the run; UNCP (4-0, 1-0 CC) led 20-8 with 12:03 left in the half.

“(Richards), by all means, knows exactly what he’s doing; it’s fueling a fire, so it’s how are you going to respond,” Levi said. “I wanted to make sure when I went back out there, he has no opportunity to take me out for anything. That means I’ve got to play hard, get rebounds, block shots, get a dunk, hit my free throws — which I was proud about that tonight — but that’s what I’ve got to do.”

That run was just the biggest example of Levi’s strong play throughout the game; the senior finished with 19 points on 7-for-9 from the floor and 5-for-6 at the free-throw line; he grabbed 11 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.

“When Spence is aggressive, guys feed off his energy, and even if he’s not getting the ball he’s still rebounds, he still defends, he does all those things,” Richards said. “To see him respond, it shows his maturity, to be able to take that and then when they came back in the game, have the impact that he did.”

Erskine closed to within nine twice over the rest of the first half, at 25-16 and 27-18, before a 21-8 stretch by UNCP extended its lead to 48-26 with 1:19 left in the half, with multiple baskets from Ratliffe and Gallon. UNCP led 48-31 at intermission.

UNCP scored the first eight points of the second half, including four points from Gallon that featured a running dunk in traffic in transition. Three straight baskets for Levi then extended the Braves’ lead to 64-38 with 15:51 remaining.

The way the Braves started the second half was reminiscent of an early-second-half run that put away Wednesday’s win against Fayetteville State.

“He has great halftime speeches that really rile up the troops,” Levi said. “So when we go in there and that happens, you see what happens when we come out in the second half; that’s two times back to back. I doubt that’s going to be the last time you see it. We shouldn’t have to do that, we should start the game like we do the second half, but it is what it is for the moment.”

After exchanging a few baskets with the Flying Fleet, UNCP went on another 11-2 run, propelled by two Berrien 3-pointers, to extend its lead to 75-44 with 11:31 to go. Erskine was never closer than a 29-point margin after that.

The Braves surpassed 100 points for the first time since a 109-89 home win over USC Aiken on Feb. 19, 2020.

UNCP shot 61.8% in the second half — a number which was even higher before some garbage-time misses — and assisted on 15 of its 21 second-half field goals. After the 13 first-half turnovers, they had eight in the second half, some of which came after the game was well in hand.

“We really challenged them at halftime, and we basically said it’s 0-0 right now, let’s imagine this is the start of the game again and see what we can do,” Richards said. “I thought our energy at the start of the second half was a lot more closer to what we’re capable of.”

In addition to Levi, Gallon also had a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds.

“Having multiple guys with double-digit rebounds, having guys get eight rebounds in 17 minutes and six rebounds in 17 minutes, that’s efficiency that I’m very proud of,” Richards said. “We’ve got weapons on this team and we’re going to try to utilize those to the best of our ability, but the nitty gritty that makes us successful is defense and rebounding, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

Four other Braves scored in double figures: Kirk, with 16 points and four assists; Ratliffe, with 12 points and four assists; Nate Dunlop, with 12 points and six rebounds; and Barrien, with 10 points.

Austin Medlin led Erskine with 18 points and Kaleb Brooks had 15 for the Flying Fleet.

UNCP travels to Emmanuel for a 7 p.m. tipoff Tuesday in Franklin Springs, Georgia.

Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.