The 4,928 people who opted to stay home rather than fill the empty Minges Coliseum seats Wednesday night missed the chance to be eyewitnesses to East Carolina’s most exciting final two seconds of the season.
Unfortunately, what seemed destined to be a game-saving miracle shot was merely a game extender, as the Pirates coughed the ball up at crucial moments in overtime and Tulane prevailed 71-69.
B.J. Tyson, the one who caught Kentrell Barkley’s launched pass and tossed up a prayer to tie the game with 0.8 seconds remaining, said the odds-defying nature of that shot magnified his yearning for a victory.
“I wanted to win more than anything,” said Tyson, who scored 12 points for a balanced offense that produced five players in double figures. “At the end, we just had to calm down and fight more. We had it right there, and we just lost it.”
It was a game of spurts interspersed with plenty of sloppiness on both sides — the two teams combined for 34 turnovers — but when the Pirates chipped away at an 11-point halftime deficit and built to the moment when Tyson’s shot fell in at the end of regulation, the 3,072 diehard fans in Minges realized they had made the right decision to show up.
The momentum was squarely in ECU’s corner, but youth and sloppy ball handling resulted in an overtime in which the Pirates scored only one basket in five minutes and turned the ball over at inopportune times.
“We’re still learning how to finish off games,” interim coach Michael Perry said. “We’re still a work in progress there. We’ve got to take better care of the basketball. We can’t be in such a rush to make plays, particularly in crunch time, that we find ourselves being careless. And that’s what happened—we gave them more opportunities to win the basketball game than we did ourselves.”
Barkley, who had to leave Sunday’s game at Southern Methodist after nine minutes with a possible concussion, was healthy enough against Tulane to tally 12 points and 18 rebounds — a career rebounding high for the junior from Durham. But not even breaking a personal record eased his frustration at losing a third consecutive game in what Perry called “a very difficult loss, a very emotional loss.”
“I’m just tired of losing, period,” Barkley said. “When you have games like this, you’ve just got to really lock in, and just try to dig within yourself and help everybody get on the same page.”
That shot that sent the contest into overtime is destined for highlight films despite the final result, but it didn’t unwind the way it had been scripted in the timeout called by ECU coach Michael Perry with two ticks left in regulation. When Barkley inbounded the ball under the Tulane basket, he was aiming for freshman Justin Whatley, but instead it landed in a scrum of green and white jerseys that brought Tyson back to his days as a high school wide receiver.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to get the ball if it goes over Justin’s head’ and it went over his head,” Tyson said. ”And I just jumped up in the air, and I felt it in my hands. I didn’t even know I was that close to the rim, so I just turned around and threw it up. I actually thought I got fouled. And then it just went in, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t even know what happened.’ ”
Through the heart of the second half, as ECU whittled the Green Wave’s advantage from 11 down to zero and then stayed neck and neck with the visitors, freshman big man Justin Whatley made several key plays to keep his team in the hunt. Perry said that Whatley, who finished with eight points and four rebounds, was a key spark in a half that saw the Pirates shoot 56.3 percent from the floor.
The other major factor in ECU’s improved play after halftime was a defensive shift from man-to-man to zone that Perry has been planning for quite some time, he said. Tulane junior guard Melvin Frazier scored at will in the first half, entering the break with 18 points, but he didn’t score a second-half basket until the final 10 seconds.
The difference, Perry said, was Tulane’s difficulty in adjusting to the Pirates’ new-look zone.
“When I took over midstream, I wanted to have another change of defense,” Perry said. “We didn’t have the zone in. But it takes a while to get it to the point where you feel comfortable utilizing it in the game. I tried it in one possession at the very end of the (first) half to see how they would handle it, and I thought ‘OK, the second half we’ll go to it, and we did. The guys did a good job moving, communication and rebounding out of it ultimately. It was a game changer for us.”