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CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The UNC Pembroke men’s basketball team rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second half to edge Tusculum 81-79 Saturday night at Curry Arena in Charlotte.

UNCP (4-0) remains undefeated on the season, while the Pioneers (3-1) suffer their first loss of the year.

It was a very entertaining game as both teams shot over 50 percent from the field and neither eclipsed double-digit turnovers in a very clean and well-played contest.

Jordan Ratliffe led the Braves with a game-high 21 points as he went 6-of-9 from three-point territory as UNCP finished the game with 15 treys, including 10 in the opening half. David Strother and Tyrell Kirk each tallied 18 points, while Akia Pruitt tallied 13 markers including his go ahead jumper with 1:22 left in the game as the Braves never trailed after that.

Tusculum senior Tariq Jenkins poured in 20 points, while freshman Justin Mitchell finished with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting including 2-of-2 from beyond the arc. Sophomore Trenton Gibson finished with 11 points and five rebounds, while Caleb Hodnett added 10 points and seven boards. Junior Brandon Mitchell finished with nine points and a game-high eight rebounds in the loss.

Pembroke shot 53.2 percent from the floor including a blistering 15-of-25 from three-point territory (60%). TU fired a season-high 51.8 percent from the floor, but shot only 6-of-17 from three for 35.3 percent.

Tusculum won the rebound battle for a fourth time this season as TU out-boarded the Braves by a 37-20 margin including 16-5 on the offensive glass. The Pioneers out-scored UNCP 40-20 in the paint and had a 22-11 advantage in bench scoring.

The first half included five ties and seven lead changes as Pembroke led by eight on two occasions in the opening 20 minutes as Kirk and Ratliffe had 12 points apiece. UNCP had a 45-38 lead with 1:15 left in the half following a Strother three-pointer. TU close out the half with a 6-0 spurt including a one free throw by Hodnett, two free throws from Brandon Mitchell and a three-pointer from Zack Dixon just before the break as the Pioneers trailed by one (45-44).

Tusculum trailed 50-46 with 17:12 remaining, but the Pioneers went on a 15-1 run over a five-minute span to take a 61-51 lead with over 10 minutes left in regulation. UNCP trimmed the TU lead to 63-58 following a Ratliffe triple with 8:31 remaining. Hodnett answered with a jumper in the paint to push the lead to 65-58.

An 8-2 run sparked by Kirk’s five points during the spurt cut the Tusculum lead to one at 67-66 with six minutes to go.

Tusculum would take a 71-68 advantage with 3:52 left following a jumper from Gibson. But Strother answered with a three-pointer to level the contest at 71-71. Jenkins made one of two free throws for a 72-71 lead but Pruitt was fouled and he converted his two trips to the line for a 73-72 UNCP lead with under three minutes left.

Brandon Mitchell converted a layup on TU’s next possession, but Ratliffe buried a key three-pointer with 2:10 left as Pembroke led 76-74. Tusculum tied the game for an eighth time thanks to a pair of free throws from Jenkins with 1:41 to go.

Pruitt gave UNCP the lead for good with his jumper in the paint at 78-76 with 1:22 left. Brandon Mitchell was fouled shooting and he made one of two free throws as the Pioneers trailed by one with 1:06 remaining.

Pembroke worked the ball around and Strother found Pruitt in the paint as he slammed down a dunk for an 80-77 lead with 44 seconds left. Smith made a jumper with 31 seconds on the scoreboard as TU trailed 80-79. Kirk was fouled with 10.8 seconds left. He missed the first free throw, but made the second for a two-point lead.

The Pioneers got the ball to Smith, Wednesday’s hero with his last second three-pointer to beat Young Harris, 74-73. But Smith’s three-point shot was off line at the buzzer as UNCP held on for the two-point victory.

Tusculum will face Lees-McRae (2-1) on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. at Curry Arena to close out TU’s Charlotte trip.

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