Every great building project needs a solid foundation. Otherwise the structure on top won’t last, no matter how architecturally sound it might be.
For the long-suffering East Carolina basketball program, the first few blocks of that foundation were put down in April when Joe Dooley was brought back as coach to continue the job he didn’t get the chance to finish two decades ago.
The next layer went on shortly thereafter when Dooley convinced three-star signee Jayden Gardner to stick with his commitment and play for the Pirates.
Saturday afternoon at Minges Coliseum, the most visible bricks to date were put into place when Dooley, Gardner and everyone else associated with ECU’s increasingly rejuvenated program beat American Athletic Conference heavyweight Cincinnati 73-71 for their first signature win together.
It wasn’t the kind of win that will turn heads or rattle any cages nationally and it certainly doesn’t mean that the Pirates have arrived as a realistic postseason contender.
But every great building project has to start somewhere.
By beating who they did and how they did it, Dooley and his young team announced to the rest of AAC, the 4,238 fans in attendance and the students that have yet to return from their holiday break that the process of building ECU into a relevant basketball entity has officially begun.
“It’s a new era. It’s the Dooley era,” Gardner said after responding to the most difficult challenge of his young career by recording his sixth double-double as a Pirate. “We practiced so hard, we worked so hard for this. So why not reward ourselves with wins?”
That’s hardly a new concept. Every team in every sport believes it stands at least a chance of winning every time it takes the field or court. But whereas previous ECU basketball teams would often just hope for positive results, this new new version showed Saturday that it has an actual belief in its ability to make good things happen.
“Last year, we would have never thought we would have come back and beat Cincinnati,” said sophomore guard K.J. Davis.
If the 9-0 deficit to start the game wouldn’t have sunk previous editions of the Pirates, then the early second half surge that helped Cincinnati erase ECU’s surprising 36-27 lead would have done the trick.
Not this time.
Instead of being satisfied with just playing well and holding its own against a quality opponent for 30-35 minutes as it has so often in the past, Dooley’s team continued to battle and answered every challenge.
First it was Davis, who helped dig the Pirates out of their early hole by scoring 10 of his team-high 17 points immediately after coming off the bench. Then it was last year’s AAC Rookie of the Year Shawn Williams, whose three second half 3-pointers prevented the Bearcats’ comeback bid from gaining any traction.
In the end, it was deep reserve Justice Obasohan — on the floor only because both Gardner and Seth LeDay had fouled out — that made the most important play of all by blocking a last-second shot by Cincinnati’s Jarron Cumberland as time expired to seal the victory.
“The big thing was the guys believed they could win,” Dooley said. “When things weren’t going necessarily right, we didn’t cave in. There was a couple times we were on the ropes and guys sort of dug their heels in. I’m proud of them. It’s a good win.”
But it was only one win, a beginning rather than an end.
Although the Pirates have made positive strides in many areas, meaningful and permanent change isn’t going to happen overnight. Dooley is a basketball coach, after all, not a miracle worker, especially with a program that has been in the doldrums as long as ECU’s has.
At the same time, the signs of growth and promise are unmistakable Saturday.
The adjustments Dooley made to negate the Bearcats’ decided size advantage inside played a major role in the upset victory, as did the rigorous conditioning program he and his staff put their players through upon their arrival this summer. The Pirates were clearly the fresher team both physically and mentally down the stretch against the defending conference champions.
Star freshman Gardner also showed personal growth by bouncing back from a scoreless first half to go 7 of 10 from the free throw line in the second on his way to a 13-point, 12-round performance. In the process, he served notice that he can be a difference maker no matter who he’s matched up against — even against a bigger, more experienced opponent.
“If I didn’t think we could win, I wouldn’t be here,” Dooley said. “We have some things we’ve got to work on, but we also have an opportunity to play in a high level league and we’ve got a guy to build around.”
In order to take the next step as a program and continue to grow, the young Pirates must now learn to consistently play at a high level and learn to win on the road. Dooley must also do his part by bolstering the roster with even more high caliber, high character players.
There are still some bricks that need to be put into place before the ECU’s basketball foundation is strong enough for a winning structure to be built upon it.
But at least finally, the process has officially begun.