PEMBROKE — By the time Nygell Verdier brought the English E. Jones Center crowd to life with a rim-rattling one-hand slam on a post-steal runout, the UNC Pembroke men’s basketball team already had a 14-point lead over visiting Erskine, less than four minutes in, before the Flying Fleet had scored a single point.
The Braves left little doubt as to the outcome of Saturday’s game from its very first moments, with an unrelenting domination from the start in a 88-34 win.
“I thought we came out with some maturity,” UNCP coach Drew Richards said. “I thought we started the game hot, defensively especially, holding them to what we needed to, and then in the second half I thought after the first couple minutes and pushed it back out. The mark of a mature team is being able to play your championship-level game regardless of the opponent’s record, whether it’s great or not great, so I was happy to see us take a step in that maturity.”
UNCP (17-5, 11-2 Conference Carolinas) took its 14-0 lead after the run began with baskets by Elijah Cobb, Josh Berenbaum and Verdier; Dallas Gardner then hit three straight baskets for the Braves to make it 12-0 before Verdier got a steal near midcourt and sprinted to the rim for the electric finish.
“Coach told us to attack in transition because they’re not a great transition defense team,” Verdier said. “I pushed the ball and I saw a gap, and attacked the gap, and saw a free lane at the rim so I took advantage of it.”
Jaylen Prioleau hit the first basket for Erskine (4-18, 0-14 CC) with 15:50 left in the half; Gardner hit a layup and Verdier knocked down two free throws for an 18-2 Braves lead shortly thereafter.
The Braves led 27-13 before an 11-0 run was sparked by five straight Cobb points, making it 38-13 with 2:58 left in the half. The Braves led 41-17 at halftime.
“Erskine doesn’t play at a fast pace; they play pretty slow and they shoot a lot of 3s,” Richards said. “So if you keep the game close, if you play at their pace and allow them to score those open 3s, it can be a tight game. Teams that play slower, you want to push out leads early so that way if they make a couple shots, it’s not going to hurt you as much in the long run. That’s why a good start to the first and second half was important, that way when the pace slows down, time is on our side as far as possessions.”
Richards primarily employed line-shift substitutions of five on, five off through much of the first half, and played 11 players within the first 13 minutes, even while missing regular starter Bradlee Haskell for the first 20 minutes due to a one-half suspension. Some 15 Braves ultimately saw the floor, with 13 scoring at least two points.
“In the past, in some games we’ve subbed out our five for negative reasons, because they weren’t giving effort, they weren’t focused, we had a slow start,” Richards said. “So we subbed the first five out, I was like, let’s see if the second five has as much energy, as much aggressiveness as that first five, and I thought they did, especially in the first half.”
Gardner’s early excellence propelled the freshman to a game-high 16-point performance.
“My thought process was just bring energy, that’s what I’m here for right now is to bring energy, make sure that we’re up, play defense,” Gardner said.
“He’s grown a lot of ways, not just scoring the basketball, but defensively he’s become a lot more trustworthy than he was early in the year, not using his hands, not overpressuring scoring areas, and the more reliable he can be in those areas just makes us deeper than we originally thought we could be,” Richards said.
Cobb scored 15 points with five rebounds, Verdier finished with 10 points and five rebounds and Haskell scored 10 points in the second half.
Defensively, the Braves held Erskine to a 34.1% mark (15-for-44) from the field and 18.8% (3-for-16) from distance, while more than doubling the Flying Fleet on the boards (37-17).
“I was proud of our defense,” Richards said. “They don’t shoot a great percentage for the year, but I know they really rely on the 3 ball, so we really wanted to keep them under, I think in their wins they hit 11 3s, so we wanted to hold them under that number.
Larry Mitchell led Erskine with six points and Grant Lovette and Connor Stark each scored five.
UNCP started the second half with a 12-2 run, extending the lead even more with two baskets each from Cobb and JaJuan Carr, to take a 53-19 lead at the 15:52 mark. The Braves led 68-34 with 5:36 left before finishing the game on a 20-0 run with reserves on the floor for both sides.
That late-game stretch was highlighted by three straight made 3s by Kam O’Connor. The redshirt-freshman had three total points in his Braves career entering Saturday’s game, then tripled that output in a stretch of less than one minute, finishing with nine points.
“I woke up this morning and I text my brother Kody, I said I just had a dream that I scored 11 points in a game,” O’Connor said. “I hit three 3s and I just went out and did it. I missed it by two points. But I just let it come to me. That’s what I do best is shoot the ball, so I just kept doing it.”
“Having a guy like Kam being able to come in at the end of the game — this kid works his tail off,” Richards said. “Every day in practice he makes us better, and Think Pink Night is a great night for him to come and hit these 3s, with his family in the stands, it’s a pretty special moment for him.”
Peyton Mann also scored a late basket, the first of his collegiate career.
UNCP is now tied for the best record in Conference Carolinas after Saturday’s win an an Emmanuel loss to Francis Marion. The Braves travel to Barton on Thursday for a 7 p.m. tipoff.