I first saw Jayden Gardner in action last season in the high school Eastern Regional finals at Williams Arena.
Gardner’s Heritage High School knocked off a very talented South Central squad, 61-55, in overtime to advance to the state 4A championship game.
Gardner fouled out late in regulation with 21 points and 8 rebounds. He seemed comfortable and at ease in what would be his new home for college at East Carolina University.
Gardner came back the next week and scored 30 points and hauled in 13 rebounds in the state championship game. Heritage lost that game, 71-60, to Independence. The future ECU standout was named the Most Outstanding Player from his team in the state finals loss.
Now Gardner is the key piece as new ECU coach Joe Dooley looks to build his program.
Gardner has been nothing short of spectacular as a Pirate. He is averaging 19.4 points per game and nine and a half rebounds per contest. That’s a half rebound from averaging a double-double.
He had his best game on Sunday in a 76-65 Pirate loss to Central Florida, scoring 35 points and 20 rebounds. His effort came against UCF’s front line, led by 7’4” Tacko Fall.
Coach Dooley commented on Gardner’s play on Monday, speaking to the media via the American Athletic Conference’s teleconference.
“We think he is a foundational type of guy,” said Dooley. “The exciting thing about him is that he’s not a finished project. He continues to figure some things out. He’ll be a guy that we can facilitate through this season as we get our younger guys older for next year and add some pieces to go with him.”
Gardner continues to be the one stable aspect to a team that continues to improve in Coach Dooley’s first year of his second stint.
“He’s a guy that can from an effort standpoint and from a dependability standpoint be rewarded,” said Dooley. “The good thing for him and the good thing for us is that I think he has another level to get to.”
Gardner certainly isn’t the biggest guy on the floor most of the time. Rebounding is more about work-ethic, hustle and determination. That’s where Jayden Gardner flourishes.
“One thing I think is that when you pursue every ball, you have a chance,” said Dooley. “He finds a way to get to loose balls. Some of the better rebounders I’ve been around haven’t been freak athletes. But they work hard.”
Jayden Gardner works extremely hard.
Gardner is confident in his game, but very soft spoken. He believes in his coach and deep down you can tell that he hopes he can be a key part to a basketball renaissance at ECU.
“We just have to continue to stay focused,” said Gardner earlier this season. “We believe in Coach Dooley. He’s never led us astray. We all have to continue to learn and get better and better.”
Unfortunately there are very few easy nights in the American. UCF is the lone unbeaten team in the league at 3-0. Houston, Cincinnati, Temple, Southern Methodist and Memphis follow at 3-1.
The Owls are up next for Gardner, Dooley and the Pirates.
“They have a terrific backcourt,” said Dooley. “We have to make sure that we defend those guys. They have an elite coach in Fran Dunphy. We have a couple of days to prepare and we had better get ready.”
It’s ECU and Temple on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Williams Arena, Minges Coliseum.
If you haven’t made a game yet, you certainly need to. This is a team that lays it out there every time out.
The Pirates will have to battle hard, because the Owls come to town with 13 wins in 16 games. The Pirates are 8-2 at home so you have to think they’ll once again play hard.
They are fun to watch and Joe Dooley is really only getting started.
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