GREENVILLE — The East Carolina seniors were playing for pride on Thursday night, hoping to win their last home game. Tulsa had a little more at stake with a win locking up fourth place in the American Athletic Conference standings and assuring a first-round bye in the league tournament in Orlando next week.
The Golden Hurricane expanded a 41-39 lead at the half for a 72-58 win.
“They got to the line and created some separation,” said interim coach Michael Perry of the Pirates.
Tulsa (18-11, 11-6 AAC) made nine of 14 free throws in the final 20 minutes while ECU was a paltry three of four.
The Pirates’ long-range shooting touch exited at intermission. After sinking eight of 15 from beyond the arc in the first half (53.3 percent), ECU was 0-for-10 in the second half.
Freshman Shawn Williams and graduate senior Aaron Jackson disappeared after scoring 14 and 10 points, respectively, while ECU was going to the East end. Neither scored after the locker room break.
It was a solid start for Jackson, a graduate transfer who was recognized on Senior Night. He had a team-high eight rebounds.
Jackson, Jabari Craig and B.J. Tyson were recognized on Senior Night with their families before tipoff.
It looked like the Pirates might rise to the occasion at the outset, taking a 12-7 lead.
But Tulsa was too balanced, too athletic and too motivated for the upset scenario to last. Five players scored in double figures with Martin Igbanu leading the way with 16 points.
ECU (10-18, 4-13) pulled even at 39 with 1:15 left in the first half on one of two free throws by Isaac Fleming, who had eight points and six assists before fouling out.
The tie lasted for one second as freshman Dimitri Spasojevic fouled on the missed free throw by Fleming. Tulsa’s Corey Henderson Jr. made two foul shots and the Golden Hurricane stayed in front the rest of the way.
The Pirates had closed from a 12-point deficit with 6:33 left in the first half but couldn’t muster another spree after Tulsa started the second half with a 12-2 run that spanned more than eight minutes.
The contest was much more competitive than a 109-58 loss at Houston on Sunday in which ECU trailed 62-13 at the half.
“The effort was there … after coming off a very difficult loss,” Perry said.
Tyson said he almost teared up when he came out of the game in the final minute to cheers from a crowd listed at 3,205.
Beyond the disappointment of the outcome, Tyson indicated that ECU had done more for him than he has done for the Pirates.
The fifth all-time scorer in school history said former ECU coach Jeff Lebo called him Thursday afternoon. Lebo resigned earlier this season.
“One man that is not here is Coach Lebo,” Tyson said. “That guy, I love him to death. He gave me an opportunity, him and the athletic director and the university. That’s one of the best moments of my life ever. I will never forget that. Whenever he came on my doorstep, him and Coach (Ken) Potosnak. They believed in me because after my senior year in high school (Anson County), I didn’t know where I was going to go. I didn’t know where I was going to end up.
“They told me I was going to have to come in, prove to them that I could do the academics. . . . I proved to them and they gave me a scholarship.”
Tyson and the Pirates head to Memphis for a Sunday tipoff at 3 p.m. Then it’s on to Orlando for the conference tournament.
One question that will accompany the team is the coaching situation. Thursday may have been Perry’s “Senior Night,” too.
The interim coach said he has kept his focus short term.
“From the very beginning, there was an understanding that I was going to coach the basketball team and take it one game at a time,” Perry said. “At the conclusion of the season, that’s when I’ll have an opportunity to sit down and talk with the athletic director about staying on as coach and removing that tag from interim to just head coach. He was very candid with me — I was going to be a candidate for the job.
“I just took it one game at a time. We’ve still got a little bit more basketball left. . . . At the very end, when everything is all said and done, I’m sure there will be some other candidates, along with myself. We’ll sit down and try to get things figured out.”
Reports have included former ECU coach Joe Dooley, now at Florida Gulf Coast, as a possible candidate. The realistic list also includes LeVelle Moton of N.C. Central. Former N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried may have more interest than the Pirates have in him.
Wes Miller of UNC-Greensboro has been mentioned. Former Indiana coach Tom Crean and former Ohio State coach Thad Matta put out feelers but their interest may have waned.