Last week, with a 2-4 record and a meeting with UNC-Charlotte on the horizon, East Carolina sophomore Dominique Claytor reflected on her young team’s growth through the early part of the season.
“We’re learning each of our roles and what we need to do to help our team out individually and as a team,” said Claytor, the Lady Pirates’ second leading scorer with 8.4 points per game. “So we’ll put the pieces together soon.”
Seven days later, Claytor looks prophetic.
The Pirates have won three games in a row, including a victory over a 49ers team that has been invited to seven WNIT and one NCAA Tournament in the past decade. ECU also felled Norfolk State and Kennesaw State.
With each game new stars emerge and the young players on the roster have a firmer idea of the effort that is required to thrive in Division I basketball. Eighth-year ECU head coach Heather Macy and her staff were methodical in the preseason, especially for the 50 percent of the roster made up of freshman and sophomores, teaching each part of the game in great detail.
But preseason strategy and conditioning can only get a team so far, Macy noted. The steepest learning curve lies between the tip-off and the final buzzer.
“We were showing it in these small areas, and then applying it to the whole,” she said. “Now all of a sudden they’re seeing it fully, and they’re realizing, ‘Oh my goodness, every single part is really, really important, and how hard you have to play to win at this level, and how hard you have to play for a sustained period of time.”
Among the ECU players who have proven they understand that distinction are Claytor, who was named to the All-Tournament Team for the Seton Hall Thanksgiving Classic late last month, and senior Thais Oliveira, a transfer from Central Florida who logged a career-high 22 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in the Kennesaw State victory.
With a week off from competition for finals, the coaching staff has the opportunity in practice to reinforce the tutoring in the fundamentals. But after igniting an early hot streak, the players will be more than ready to hit the court again on December 14 under real game conditions.
From the time they first took the court together, Macy knew she was looking at a special group because of their dedication to the game and passion for ECU.
“I’ve got a really great group to coach,” she said. “They’re hardworking, they bleed purple and gold, they’re passionate every day. It only helps to fuel me and feed me, so that’s a wonderful thing.”
The season’s rocky start was a direct result of that group’s inexperience, Macy said. Some of the freshmen players had never been on an airplane, so the first road trip was an experience in itself.
Players like Claytor, who is only a sophomore but earned a place in the starting lineup by Christmas of her freshman year, illustrate a key piece of evidence for the younger players — evidence of the type of tenacity Macy requires if one wants to contribute for the Lady Pirates.
“She gets how hard you have to defend and rebound,” Macy said. “Consistency in defense and rebounding, that’s how you earn minutes here.”
Freshman Ariyana Williams seemed to get the message in ECU’s win over Norfolk State, in which she led all Pirate scorers with 13 points. She will take her first group of exams ever, after which she and her teammates will return to non-conference action for four games before the true test arrives when American Athletic Conference play begins with a visit by Cincinnati on December 30.
The American is characterized by steep competition – ECU was chosen to finish 12th out of 12 teams in the preseason coaches’ poll – but Claytor said that her team plays together exceptionally well, and as they gain experience in the trenches the Lady Pirates are expected to surprise the observers who made that prediction.
“We play together, we care about each other,” she said. “We just look out for each other. We play hard no matter what.”
Claytor and her teammates have tried to spread that gospel to the ECU student body and others in the community, in hopes that a regular, vocal group of fans will find their way to the Lady Pirates game and turn Williams Arena into a venue opponents fear.