AIKEN --- With the game well in hand in the waning moments, George Johnson tossed his right arm around Franck Ndongo's neck.
On the bench, Johnson rubbed his left hand across the top of his teammate's head, delivering a Ndongo noogie. The two seniors laughed and soaked in the rest of the game. Just another easy Sunday for the Jaguars.
In the Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship, No. 5 Augusta State clamped down on defense, pulled away late in the first half and went on to defeat UNC Pembroke, 76-59, at the convocation center.
"It's a great thing," junior guard Tye Beal said. "I'm happy for everybody. Happy for George to get one."
"Not a lot of people thought on Oct. 15 we'd be in this situation." Jaguars coach Dip Metress said. "I'm very proud of these guys."
Augusta State (28-3), the regular-season league champion, won its second Peach Belt Conference Tournament title in three years. The Jaguars extended their winning streak to seven games and notched their third consecutive season of 28 or more wins.
Playing in front of a mostly blue-clad crowd of 1,222, Augusta State defeated UNC Pembroke (18-11) for the third time this season -- each win coming by double digits.
"We do match up well (against the Braves)," Metress said. "We have pretty good defenders. And we got to free-throw line and made a bunch of free throws."
Augusta State closed out the Braves in the second half, draining a tournament-record 34 free throws on a season-high 42 attempts. O'Neal Armstrong, who scored 14 points, shot 10 for 11 from the line.
The Jaguars had more free-throw attempts than field goal attempts (39). Augusta State made 18 shots from the floor off 11 assists.
Johnson was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player after averaging 15.6 points in three tournament games. Against UNC Pembroke, he scored 16 points and made two 3-pointers.
Beal led Augusta State with 17 points on 4 for 5 shooting from 3-point range. Ndongo added 15 points and four steals. Armstrong, an all-tournament selection, added 14 points and four assists.
Beal opened the Augusta State scoring with a 3-pointer in the first minute and made three 3-pointers in the first half to set the tone. He posted his highest point-total since scoring 22 in the season opener at Anderson.
Metress challenged Beal in practice two weeks ago to make more shots. In the past four games, Beal's made nine 3-pointers.
"He didn't like it at all," Metress said. "But he responded."
Armstrong scored 48 points in the tournament to push his season scoring average to 9.1. Against UNC Pembroke, he and Beal attacked the basket, helping free up Johnson on the perimeter.
"When they're knocking down shots we're hard to guard as a team," Johnson said. "They've picked it up right on time."
Augusta State and UNC Pembroke went back and forth in the first half, trading the lead nine times. Two Ndongo free throws staked Augusta State to a 16-15 advantage.
After K.J. Cooper missed a 3-pointer, Ndongo hit a jumper. Later, Johnson made a layup. Then, Ndongo added a layup.
Augusta State kept hammering away on offense, going on an 18-0 run to storm to a 32-15 lead late in the first half. The Jaguars went into the break up 13.
"We talked about it at halftime," Armstrong said. "We had to keep applying the pressure."
UNC Pembroke, making its first Peach Belt championship game appearance, shot just 36 percent from the field. The Braves pulled within 12 in the final minute, but never got closer.
Shahmel Brackett, an all-tournament selection, scored a game-high 24 points to lead UNC Pembroke.
"Congratulations to Augusta State. They have a great basketball team, and we have a good team as well," Braves coach Ben Miller said. "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're just disappointed in the outcome."