AIKEN, S.C. – Augusta State used a seven-minute scoring drought by UNCP midway through the first half to break an otherwise close game wide open as the fifth-ranked and top-seeded Jaguars handed the Braves a 76-59 loss in the championship game of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament on Sunday afternoon in USC Aiken's Convocation Center.
The triumph marked the fourth PBC Tournament Championship, and the second in the last three years, for Augusta State (28-3) who is expected to be the host and top seed in next weekend's NCAA Southeast Regional tournament. UNCP (18-11), making its first-ever appearance in the championship game of the tournament, fell for the 18th-straight time in its series with the Jaguars, but added to a strong postseason tournament resume this week with wins over two of the region's top 10 teams, including a win over No. 3 Georgia Southwestern on Saturday.
Shahmel Brackett scored a game-high 24 points for UNCP on 8-of-14 shooting from the field and a 6-for-6 success rate from the free throw line. Chris Hargove added nine points as well, with George Blakeney grabbing a game-high seven rebounds. Tye Beal scored 17 points to lead a quartet of Jaguars with double-figure scoring nights. George Johnson scored 16 points, with Franck Ndongo and O'Neal Armstrong adding 15 and 14 points, respectively.
Johnson capitalized on a UNCP turnover just eight seconds into the second half with a 3-pointer on the other end to extend a sizeable halftime lead out to 16 points, 40-24, with 19:35 left in the game. The Jags would use a small 7-1 run with just less than 10 minutes remaining in the contest to push their lead out to 21 points, 55-34, on a Beal 3-pointer at the 7:22 mark. The Black and Gold would whittle its deficit down to just a dozen, 71-59, on Brackett's 3-pointer with less than a minute remaining, but went 0-for-3 down the stretch while watching the Jags can 5-of-6 free throws in providing the final.
"Congratulations to Augusta State. They have a great basketball team, and we have a good team as well," said UNCP head coach Ben Miller. "We didn't play our best, but you have to give them credit. They make things tough. But I am real proud of our guys. Not many people expected us to be playing on the last day. Everybody did a great job getting us to this point. We are just disappointed in the outcome."
A tight game through the first 9-1/2 minutes of the contest, two free throws by Ndongo with 10:18 remaining sparked the Jaguars on an 18-0 run that gave Augusta State a 32-15 lead at the 3:51 mark. The Braves would trim their deficit back to 11 on Mike Robinson's lay-in with 15 seconds left before the break, but two free throws by Armstrong 11 seconds later would give the Jaguars a 37-24 lead heading into the locker rooms.
UNCP will now play the waiting game in hopes that it will attain an at-large berth into the 64-team NCAA Tournament field. That announcement will be made via a live webcast at NCAA.com on Sunday evening at 10 p.m.
"We have a chance to continue playing, and that's we are hoping for," Miller said. "But, if this is it, I am very proud of these players and what they have done. We have made a lot of growth as a program."
NOTES: UNCP was making its first PBC Tournament championship game appearance … The Braves made their first semifinal round appearance since 1996 on Saturday against Georgia Southwestern … Sophomores Shahmel Brackett and George Blakeney garnered all-PBC Tournament team laurels – the first such honors for a UNCP player since Frank Smith was awarded the honor for then-Pembroke State in 1996 … UNCP's 31-27 rebounding edge over the Jaguars marked the 23rd time this season that the Braves have won the rebounding battle against an opponent.