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Chris Stiles: Pembroke, the mecca of Conference Carolinas basketball

Mar. 13—SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The enduring image of the 2024 Conference Carolinas Tournament just might be one that came about five minutes after the buzzer sounded on the women's championship game, won by UNC Pembroke for the second-straight year.

The Lady Braves had been presented the trophy, and tournament organizers were ready to proceed with the tradition of the champions cutting down the nets. But the team instead was gathering at midcourt — confusing some of the tournament staff — to document the moment with another talented group of hoopers, their male counterparts, taking a group photo of both teams with one finger pointed aloft to signify "we're No. 1."

Both the Braves men and women won their respective Conference Carolinas Tournament titles on Sunday, with the Braves men winning an 82-81 overtime nailbiter against Emmanuel and the Lady Braves topping Belmont Abbey 72-51.

Winning both titles — and doing so as the top seed in each tournament — solidifies Pembroke as the center of the Conference Carolinas basketball world. Both teams were picked in the preseason to win the conference crown; both delivered in the postseason to become champions.

While one school winning both titles isn't as rare as one might think — Emmanuel did it in 2019 and Belmont Abbey in 2021 — it is nonetheless the first time in four Conference Carolinas Tournaments held at Wofford in which the same schoo lifted both trophies.

The Braves men had left Spartanburg disappointed in the two previous seasons, also earning the top tournament seed from their regular-season accomplishments in those years but losing in the championship game in 2022 and the semifinals last year.

But this time the Braves finally broke through, beating an Emmanuel team that they'd had some previous wars against and lost to in the previous two meetings.

The title not only had the feel of a long-awaited accomplishment for this Braves core after those previous tournament runs came up short, but also after the team had to play 90 minutes of basketball in a 26-hour span, winning overtime games in both the semifinals against Barton and the championship. The Braves were physically and emotionally spent as the buzzer sounded at 3:06 p.m. Sunday afternoon, leading to an emotional release of joy and relief in the victory from Most Outstanding Player Elijah Cobb, All-Tournament guards Nygell Verdier and Bradlee Haskell and the rest of the team.

"I was proud of how we gutted it out," UNCP coach Drew Richards said. "Another situation in overtime where I was the most confident guy in the room, because I know what we've done in overtime and I know we've been consistently able to win in situations like that, and I think we did a good job in that. So I'm proud of these guys; I told them in the locker room, I don't think there's any coach in the world right now that's as proud as I am of this group."

After being the best program in the regular season for the three years since it joined the league, UNCP can now put a postseason trophy on the mantle to further solidify its place atop the league.

The Braves men join the Lady Braves as conference champions, as the women's team provided a different kind of solidification, backing up a 2023 run to the tournament title with a second-straight triumph in 2024.

Last year's run came as a surprise to many; UNCP was the No. 3 seed in the tournament, playing without All-Conference performer Courtney Smith due to injury, and having never before won a conference tournament in its Division II era.

This time, the Lady Braves entered as the defending champs and the top seed, having won nine of their last 10 games — and continued that strong form even with a target on their back, playing their best game of the season on Sunday and making a program-record 15 3-pointers en route to the title, becoming the first back-to-back champions of the event since Limestone won three straight championships from 2014-16.

This run had far more of a sense of finality — win or lose — for a Braves team with five seniors each playing their fifth year of college basketball after gaining an extra year of eligibility as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to coach John Haskins' announcement in January that this season, his 20th leading the Lady Braves, would be his last before retirement.

"For our seniors, it's our last time, so we're trying to go as long as we can go," Hall said. "And coach, it's his last time, so we're trying to win for him. And it's just exciting — it's March, so you just get the adrenaline pumping."

It remains to be seen how far the Lady Braves can go in the NCAA Tournament to extend the careers of Haskins, Hall, Smith, Aniah McManus, Lillian Flantos and Alcenia Purnell. Advancing even to the second round would be a program first, and Haskins believes that if his team plays well offensively they're capable of playing with and potentially beating anyone they may face, including first-round opponent and top-seeded Catawba.

The men's team also looks to get further than previous years under Richards after a second-round NCAA loss in 2022 and a first-round upset loss in last year's tournament; they, too, will face Catawba in the first round.

But regardless of how either team performs on the NCAA Tournament stage, they've proven themselves as worthy champions by how well they competed in Spartanburg, and how well they've represented their university both on and off the court.

You'll often hear the statement that a certain league's basketball "runs through" college-town X, filling in the blank with the hot team of the moment.

But in 2024, it's legitimately true: Conference Carolinas basketball — men's and women's — runs through Pembroke, and after taking the best shot from the opposition both teams of Braves still came out on top.

Sports editor Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at cstiles@robesonian.com. You can follow him on X/Twitter at @StilesOnSports.