By Rob Daniels
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Friday was UNCG men's basketball team's NCAA-mandated off day for the week, and this time, it felt like a reward rather than a matter of perfunctory rules compliance.
After half a season of defeat, the Spartans were back on campus on this day as victors, having removed themselves from an ignominious and shrinking list of Division I's winless. Thursday night's 75-74 win at Appalachian State, which had been 3-1 in the Southern Conference and unbeaten at home, confirmed that the guys in Blue and Gold were entitled to feel more golden than blue.
"Walking around kinda felt different," forward Aaron Brackett said, describing his otherwise normal journey to and from class on Friday. "People were walking up to me and saying, 'Great game.' "
Brackett put bookends around the 15-game, season-opening losing streak with the night of his life, a 28-point, 15-rebound effort that helped UNCG's comeback from a 41-28 halftime deficit. The junior forward became only the ninth player in the country this season with 28 or more points and 15 or more rebounds in a game, and he's the only guy on that list to do it in conference play.
For the third time in four games, the Spartans eradicated a double-digit halftime deficit. This time, they had enough in the tank to keep going and hold on. They came up with three defensive stops in the final 15 seconds – the most impressive of which was freshman David Williams' block of a runner by Omar Carter, the Mountaineers' tremendous swing man.
When Brackett missed a free throw with six seconds to go and Donald Sims brought the ball across halfcourt for Appalachian, even the most optimistic of Spartans could be excused for fearing the worst. Would Sims, the most accurate free-throw shooter in Southern Conference history, lean into somebody and induce a whistle? Would the No. 2 3-point shooter in league history throw one in from 40 feet and finish his night 6-for-12 from downtown?
"Sims has made so many of those against us and others," UNCG coach Mike Dement said, "and it sure looked good."
The rest of the Spartans were off the foul line and back to defend, leaving Brackett all alone – emotionally and otherwise.
"My heart stopped for a second," he said. "I was thinking, 'Man, I wish I had made those so we had a three-point lead so at least we'd go to overtime.' When he chucked it up, I thought it might be going in. Because he was knocking them down all night."
The attempt grazed the rim but bounced away, and the Spartans could exhale.
The Spartans' tenacity had an emotionally satisfying outcome. Nobody likes being down 10 or 11 or 13 at the break, but UNCG's response to such situations has been positive lately.
"That was about drive and determination," Brackett said. "We were determined to get that win on the road. We wanted to send a message to the whole conference that we're not a team you can just expect to beat because of our record. We showed that you have to come and play us."
The result appeared to take some people by surprise. In the first version of its story on the game, one media outlet began by saying Brackett's efforts lifted UNCG to its first win of the season. The next paragraph listed the Spartans' record as 0-16 – perhaps the result of some pregame assumptions and a fill-in-the-blank template.
The Spartans would take any victory, but the timing of this one was especially good. On Monday, the Associated Press began sending out a nightly advisory to update clients on the outcomes of the remaining undefeated and winless teams in Division I. UNCG's off the list and presumably spared from the unwanted attention that might have flowed its way if the streak had grown.
The Spartans now become honorary fans of Centenary, 0-16 and the only of the 345 full or provisional Division I members still seeking its first victory. UNCG is off this weekend before welcoming Davidson to the Greensboro Coliseum on Monday.
"I feel we deserved that last night," Brackett said, "but we can't dwell on it too much. We can't over-celebrate. We have to focus on our next game and get a streak going."
- UNCG -