UNC Pembroke look to slay another giant in D2 football playoffs

Fresh off a road win against perennial power Valdosta State, the Braves will take on top-seeded North Alabama in the second round of the NCAA Division II football playoffs on Saturday

Senior wide receiver B.J. Bunn has caught 63 passes for 1

Some might say that UNC Pembroke got stuck with a difficult draw in the NCAA Division II football playoffs. Coach Shane Richardson and his players look at it differently. The way they see it, the bracket that matched them against three-time national champion Valdosta State and top-seeded North Alabama in the opening two rounds — both on the road — is more of an opportunity to prove the old adage that to be the best, you first have to beat the best. “There’s an expectation to be at this level,” said Richardson, who is in his third season as the Braves’ head coach after serving as their defensive coordinator for the first seven years of the program’s history. “It’s just just a hope or a wish or a dream, it’s something that can become a reality if we focus on the right things, we put in the work and we’re committed to what we’re doing. That’s what we saw last Saturday (at Valdosta). Now, it’s like ‘here we go.’ Let’s make it another one-game season and make sure that we’re taking care of business at an even better rate.” UNCP (10-1) got the job done last Saturday by jumping out to a big early lead and holding on late for a 24-21 victory at Valdosta State in a strange game that saw the teams combine for nine interceptions. The win was a significant one for more than just allowing the Braves to advance into the second round of the national championship tournament. It was also the first postseason triumph in their short but successful history and the first time the program has reached double digit victories in a season. It’s an accomplishment made all the more impressive by the fact that UNCP is just two seasons removed from its worst season ever at 2-8 in 2014. And yet, because there are still more games to play and more firsts to achieve, the Braves aren’t ready to start patting themselves on the back for a job well done just yet. “It’s always kind of in the back of our mind, but we have the mindset of we’re not finished yet,” senior wide receiver B.J. Bunn said of his team’s record-setting season. “Everyone has one goal in mind and that’s to be the premier team in Division II football. The goal is to win the national championship, so we’re not satisfied. We don’t look at it as an accomplishment. We’re not going to celebrate until the work is done.” Bunn and his teammates, the majority of whom came from in-state high schools, will have their work cut out for them on Saturday against North Alabama. The Lions have won eight straight since losing their season opener to FCS Jacksonville State and had a first-round playoff bye. This the 21st playoff appearance for the Gulf South Conference champions. Although their football histories are vastly different, UNCP and North Alabama have a lot in common in that they will be playing for the fourth straight season and second time in the playoffs. The Lions have won all three of the previous meetings, including a 37-13 postseason victory at Pembroke in 2013 and a 62-29 beatdown in Florence, Ala., a year ago. It’s a loss that still weighs heavily on the Braves’ minds. “It’s kind of like a revenge game for us,” said Bunn, who last week became the first receiver in UNCP history to reach the 1,000-yard mark in a season. “They put us out of the playoffs two years ago and they killed us last year. We have a little chip on our shoulder and we plan on going down there and taking care of business, just like we did with Valdosta.” The Braves also lost to Valdosta State in 2015 while going 6-4. According to Richardson, the experience his team has gained over the past year, along with a proven ability to beat elite teams on the road, has given UNCP confidence that it can reverse the result against the Lions as well. In addition to Bunn, the Braves are led by quarterback Patrick O’Brien, who has completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,720 yards and 21 touchdowns, 800-yard running back Rontonio Stanley. Defensively, lineman Tyler Hinton has recorded 7.5 sacks while linebacker Garrett Barnett has made a team-leading 81 tackles.UNCP averages 34.55 points per game while allowing 22.8 points. North Alabama is outscoring its opponents by an average of 44-14. “Last year we were still figuring out who we were,” Richardson said. “We were still young and inexperienced and we went into an environment that had a really good team and they were able to put up a lot of points on us. “We weren’t ready for it. We weren’t ready to handle some of the adversity we faced or for a big stage like that. This year, we’re more motiv