If the East Carolina basketball team was trying to see how dramatically it could set the stage for another improbable Minges comeback, Wednesday night against Temple marked a major miscalculation.
Despite heroics to close a seismic gap that formed in the game’s early minutes, the Pirates couldn’t sustain their comeback effort against a relaxed, efficient 14-3 Temple squad that dispatched the home team 85-74.
ECU gave new definition to the term “slow start” by limping to an early deficit that resulted in a 24-4 Owls lead with 13:00 remaining in the first half. Far from actually being orchestrated, the sluggish early minutes confounded both the Pirate players and head coach Joe Dooley, who said the team that took the floor on Wednesday bore little resemblance to the Pirates of the previous three games.
“I don’t think we’ve played like that in a while,” Dooley said. “We just didn’t seem in sync from the get-go. We did dig ourselves out of a hole, which was good to see, we did fight back, but then we had too many breakdowns on things we have not done in a long time, so that was really disappointing. Everything was a breakdown. We did things tonight that we haven’t done in a while, even in practice.”
“We didn’t come out to play at all today, and it took us to really come together and rally our guys up,” said sophomore guard K.J. Davis, who finished with 15 points to be the second-leading ECU scorer after freshman Jayden Gardner. “At halftime, we went in the locker room and tried to go over everything we were doing wrong.“
After Gardner made a layup on the Pirates’ opening possession, ECU went 8:23 without a field goal, converting only free throws until Seth LeDay finally overcame the drought with a just over eleven minutes remaining in the first.
With that long-awaited basket, the Pirates finally found a rhythm and woke up a Minges crowd of 4,551. ECU came within eight points before a late Temple surge sent the two teams to the locker room with a 37-23 halftime score.
Dooley didn’t have much specific feedback during halftime, Gardner said, saying only, “You guys figure it out.”
Gardner apparently took Dooley’s message to heart. Last week’s national freshman of the week finished with 27 points and 8 rebounds.
“We talked and we came together as a unit and made a decision, do we want to play or do we just want to get rolled over?” Gardner said. “And we decided to fight.”
Back on the court, the Pirates engineered their second comeback of the night, nearly erasing that 14-point deficit in the first 5:30. Trailing 42-41, Temple players hit two three-pointers in the next two minutes and ECU never got as close again. The second of those threes, converted with a cool hand by junior guard Quinton Rose, seemed to signal the experience deficit between the Pirates and the Owls as Temple commenced a run of its own.
“I think just their poise, they’ve got a lot of older guys,” Davis said. “We’ll get there, I have no doubt that we’ll get there. I see it as growing, but we just have to mature a little bit. I think that’s what they have that we don’t.”
With a road trip to Houston next on the schedule, Dooley will use the intervening practice days to establish as much consistent intensity as possible. When facing a team as talented as Temple, victories won’t come if the Pirates allow themselves a bad night or a fluctuation in play based on whether a game is played at home or on the road, he said.
“Home, away, you’ve got to be turned up everywhere,” Dooley said. “We’re not good enough, talentwise, to just line up and play. We’ve got to be turned up to the full throttle to be able to compete. And if we’re not, we’re going to get beat. And even if we are turned up full throttle, we might get beat. Effort should be a constant, it shouldn’t be something you’re congratulated for or praised for, you should always try hard.”