It was just one intense, triumphant minute in the second quarter of the East Carolina women’s team’s 59-47 win over Grand Canyon on Wednesday, but that sixty seconds gave the Pirates permanent possession of the momentum and reminded coach Chad Killinger of two factors that propelled ECU to 3-0 — experience and coachability.
After a hot start powered by Destiny Campbell’s eight points in the first four minutes, the Pirates’ outside shooting cooled off and the Antelopes began to chip away at a 16-5 ECU lead. By the end of the quarter the home team held a slight 20-18 edge, and the sluggishness continued into the second.
With 4:37 remaining, GCU’s Venla Varis made a layup to tie the game 24-24, a score that was ECU’s only non-lead of the game and marked the beginning of the Pirates’ magic minute.
Sparkplug guard Raven Johnson made a three-pointer almost immediately after GCU knotted it up, then she stole the ball and launched it to teammate Justice Gee for a fast break basket. Then the Antelopes missed a three-pointer, and on the next possession Gee and Johnson teamed up again, this time on a Gee rebound and pass to Johnson, who converted a layup for a 31-24 lead.
By halftime the Pirates were ahead 34-24, and in the second half the margin never fell below seven points.
“Defensively, I think our intensity picked up a little bit,” Killinger said. “We changed defenses. The way the game is played now, I don’t think you can just sit in one defense, because I feel like teams are able to get a rhythm against you. And I feel like we changed defenses and created some situations where we were able to get out in transition.”
Despite the tumult of ECU’s preseason, which saw former head coach Heather Macy resign after an internal investigation on October 17, the squad has found stability in the maturity of a lineup that features three seniors and six juniors and relies on different leaders in each game.
Five different players have scored in double digits in ECU’s first three outings, and three different players have led the team in rebounds. When adjustments are necessary, as they were on Wednesday, the team is characterized by flexibility and humility, Killinger said.
“Once we try to make some adjustments, they’re trying to do everything we ask them to do,” Killinger said. “It’s not easy to win games at this level, regardless of who you’re playing, so you have to be willing to make adjustments throughout, and maybe something you haven’t even planned on using, but for whatever reason you have to go to it.
“And our team is usually good about finding the person who has the hot hand and getting the ball to them. They’re really an unselfish group, which makes it pretty easy to coach them.”
Sophomore forward Tamia Hicks, who notched seven rebounds and nine points in the victory and helped diversify the offense when perimeter shooting stopped advancing the score early, said the individualized approach and intensity in practice has prepared the players for games like Wednesday’s, when they were unable to rely on just one set of strengths.
“I think, as a team, we just rallied together,” Hicks said. “We knew that we needed to get a gap in the game. Even in practices we are together, so in the games it’s even easier for us to be together. I think that momentum and that energy just carried from the group that was on to the subs that came in, which helped us get a bigger lead.”
Killinger praised his squad’s defensive efforts against the Antelopes, noting that after GCU shot 61.5 percent in the first quarter ECU held them to 30 percent, 21.4 percent and 44.4 percent in the other three.
On offense, one consistent factor through each of ECU’s games so far is the dynamic presence of Johnson, a junior from Lilburn, GA, who has scored 50 total points in the Pirates’ three victories and has emerged as a leader who can help move the needle when her team hits a lull.
“She’s just an energetic kid, never seems to get tired, and does a good job,” Killinger said. “We can put her on the other team’s best player and she does a great job. And if we need somebody to get to the basket, she can do that. She just has a little bit of an infectious personality, and I think people pick up on that.”
ECU will try to continue its undefeated campaign on Sunday at home, with a 5 p.m. game against Kennesaw State.