GREENVILLE — When East Carolina guard John Whitley hit a floater for his first points of the season with 40 seconds left in Wednesday’s win over South Florida, the Pirate bench and Minges Coliseum faithful discovered a windfall of something that has been in short supply lately – joy.
The home team’s 90-52 victory was truly a salve, both for the team coming off two difficult home losses and the 2,857 fans who hoped they might see something that rendered a trip out in a snowstorm worthwhile.
Less than two minutes in, Kentrell Barkley grabbed his first of seven steals, followed by a dunk, and it was clear that leaving the house had been the right decision.
The win was as historic as it was entertaining. It was the Pirates’ largest margin of victory since November 20, 2014, when they felled Virginia-Lynchburg by 41.
ECU hasn’t defeated a conference opponent that resoundingly since a 42-point win over VMI in 1970.
The Pirates’ 61.4 percent field goal percentage is the highest this season by nearly 10 percentage points. Barkley’s 7 steals tied the school record. Shawn William’s 22 points notched a career high.
Even though his stat line was one for the scrapbook – 18 points, 10 rebounds, 7 steals and 7 assists – Barkley was quick to credit the synchronicity of the team with Wednesday’s happy result.
ECU interim coach Michael Perry agreed, calling the team effort “a beautiful thing to see.”
“We went into the game tonight with the thinking and the process being that we wanted to pass up a good shot to create a better shot, a great shot for somebody else,” Perry said. “And when I saw that stat sheet and I saw the assist number as opposed to the total field goals, it was impressive — I think 22 assists on 35 field goals, and that’s an impressive number. As a coach you don’t get a chance to see games like this that often, but you really enjoy them.”
For all of Barkley’s offensive theatrics, Perry was the proudest of his intensity on defense. He was assigned to cover Bulls graduate transfer Payton Banks, who scored 22 points in USF’s last game against Cincinnati.
Hounded by Barkley, Banks was 0-for-6 from the field. That kind of defensive tenacity is one of the tools the Pirates hope to bring to the remainder of the season, which starts with a Saturday road game against No. 12 Cincinnati.
“He actually stepped up to the challenge of this kid,” Perry said “And you know, I’ve been with Kentrell a long time. I’ve seen him in AAU, I helped recruit him and I’ve obviously coached him for three years. I’ve never seen him step up to a defensive challenge like that. He was dialed in completely all night.”
For Williams, who came off the bench to lead all Pirate scorers and rained in 11 of his 22 points from three-point range, the win was a reminder that basketball actually works better when everyone plays in harmony, and it was an environment that brought out his best.
“I’m just feeling comfortable out there, knocking my shots down,” he said.
Even if the final score might not have indicated it, Perry said the team moved further down the road toward the team they want to be through both the Wichita State and Houston defeats, and those lessons were on display against the Bulls.
Barkley stopped short of calling Wednesday a perfect game, emphasizing the team’s need for improvement, but the night provided a glimpse of what can continue to happen if the team focuses on the right things, he said.
“The objective is to play as a team,” Barkley said. “If we can go out and do the same thing we did tonight — taking good shots, eliminating bad shots and taking care of the ball — I think we’ll have a pretty good chance of winning the game.
“I feel like we’re unstoppable if we play team basketball.”
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