Around the 9:30 mark of East Carolina’s win over Grambling State Thursday night, Dimitri Spasojevic stopped looking like a freshman.
Spasojevic had already scored twice in the second half, but then for about three minutes he took over. He followed two successful foul shots with a block, a layup, a steal, an offensive rebound, another layup, a defensive rebound and another foul shot.
When his hot streak ended, Spasojevic had helped turn a tie game into a six-point Pirate lead, and when he sunk two more free throws two minutes later he had amassed a season-high 16 points.
“We really needed this win, and we came back strong,” he said. “We came back strong, and the coaches were encouraging us. Everybody was believing in this win, and that’s why it happened.”
The 6-foot-8 forward from Vrsac, Serbia, had scored in double digits twice before this season – 13 points against Central Connecticut and 10 against UNC-Wilmington. But Thursday was the first time Spasojevic’s play gave his team such a significant boost.
His coach and teammates weren’t too surprised by Spasojevic’s emergence. In the media room after the 76-68 victory, senior guard B.J. Tyson gestured at him and said, “This is not a freshman. This is a grown man.”
Interim head coach Michael Perry said that Spasojevic is one player who never needs to be reminded to take his actions on the court seriously.
“He’s a pleasure to coach because he’s one of those kids who really holds himself really accountable,” Perry said. “Some kids, you have to kind of chew them out a little bit to get them going. He’s one of those guys you kind of have to tell him to calm down, because he’s really tough on himself. He’s one of those kids who has really high standards for himself, both on and off the floor.”
As a member of two Serbian national teams before committing to ECU, Spasojevic gained experience against a high level of international competition. It shows not only in his maturity on and off the court but in his mobility and versatility in the post, Perry said.
Spasojevic also pulled down seven rebounds in the Grambling State win. He said that he and his teammates are committed to putting forth the kind of consistent defensive effort that sets teams apart.
“I think everybody’s mindset was, we really need this, and we can only get it by great defense,” he said. “Offense is going to come. We’re going to score, maybe we’re not going to score, but we’ve got to play defense all the time.”
His emergence was the most striking catalyst in Thursday’s game, but veteran Pirates made key contributions as well. Tyson led all ECU scorers with 20 points – 15 in the first half – and junior Isaac Fleming pitched in 18.
The victory was a satisfactory answer to Monday’s dispiriting loss to UNC-Charlotte, and it was achieved without junior Kentrell Barkley, who is averaging 13 points a game but was sidelined Thursday because of strep throat.
Winning their final non-conference game of the season means the Pirates can break for Christmas with a 6-5 record and a shot of confidence leading up to their inaugural AAC game at Tulsa on December 28. Tyson said that he is looking forward to time at home with family, especially since the players don’t have to report back until the day after Christmas.
Perry will travel to Virginia to visit his family for Christmas, he said, but he also plans to check in with his players in the coming days to “make sure those guys remember my voice,” he said, with their most crucial test ahead.
“When we come back, it gets real, as they say,” he said. “We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us. Everything for the entire year has been pointing toward conference play. So they’re ready to show that they belong in this league and they can compete with teams in this league.”
It’s not a long enough break for a trip to Serbia, so Spasojevic will go home to Little Washington with teammate John Whitley and visit with his family via FaceTime.
He is looking forward to experiencing his first American Christmas, he said, but he didn’t hesitate when asked what he was hoping to receive for the holidays: “Just give me another win.”