Joe Dooley’s Pirates fell behind 9-0 to a Cincinnati basketball team that was knocking on the AP Top 25’s door at 12-2 on the season.
Add in the fact that the Pirates were coming off a miserable road loss at Southern Methodist, and this East Carolina team had every opportunity to pack it in and try another day.
Dooley settled his young team down. His Pirates might not win on this day, but they certainly weren’t going to quit.
Then again, maybe his Pirates would win this day.
They did, stunning Cincinnati, 73-71, at Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum.
Dooley challenged his team during the timeout.
“I asked them, ‘What are we scared of?’ We’re not aggressive, we’re passive, we’re not doing what we’re capable of doing. It was, ‘Let’s get going.’ I think we responded pretty well.”
The Pirates responded extremely well. It was as good of a win as we’ve seen in quite a while in Greenville.
“Really good team win and I think the biggest thing is the guys believed they could win it,” said Dooley after the game. “When things weren’t going necessarily right, we didn’t cave in. There were a couple of times we were on the ropes and guys sort of dug their heels in, and I’m proud of them. It’s a good win.”
Cincinnati had great size and length. Early in Saturday’s game it looked like the Pirates might not score. The struggle was real.
K.J. Davis came in and hit what I thought were the biggest shots of the game. Davis showed his team that it could score. The Pirates gained confidence from there and got back in the game very quickly.
“It was big. We were struggling and he (Davis) made some shots. Big pull-up (jumper), made some plays, he was aggressive driving the ball to the basket,” said Dooley. “I think what was under-appreciated to tell you the truth was the defense. He did a great job when Isaac (Fleming) picked up his third foul in the second half of guarding (Jarron) Cumberland for a number of minutes. You’re not going to stop him. He still got 18 points. But limited his touches and limited some opportunities for him to score.”
The other big key to the upset over Cincinnati was the play of freshman Jayden Gardner. Gardner didn’t score in the first half of the win, but still pulled down 10 rebounds. His quick first step paid dividends in the second half as the Pirates battled down the stretch.
“We talk about it with our guys all the time, you can’t simulate Cincinnati or SMU’s length in practice,” explained Dooley. “You’re saying to them throw the ball a little bit higher on a shot or you’ve got to get the shot off a little bit quicker, but until they see the speed and athleticism, it sort of jolts you. I still think he’s crafty enough to figure some of these things out. In the second half, he had a couple of huge plays and free throws.”
Next up the Pirates hit the road for games at Memphis and at Central Florida. East Carolina will be big underdogs in both contests.
Coach Dooley knows that winning on the road is a huge hurdle for his program.
“That’s the next challenge,” said Dooley. “These guys have been on the road four times. We’ve got to figure out some things and I think the big thing is a lot more reps. The familiarity, you’ve now played Cincinnati and you know what this league is like, and now you go to Memphis, and they’re a little bit different. Central Florida is a little bit different. Now how do you translate it on the road? It’s being solid defensively, it’s hitting open shots and it’s not panicking when things go wrong.”
It’s a pretty simple formula, but this is a young Pirate basketball team in Dooley’s first year.
There will be more growing pains this season, but for one day the Pirates proved they could play with one of the upper echelon teams in the American Athletic Conference.
It was a great win, and one that Joe Dooley hopes his club will build on.