Despite a crowd strength of only 3,400 at Minges Coliseum on Wednesday night, the Pirates — and the officials — gave the fans several opportunities to show both enthusiasm and frustration.
Unfortunately, the latter emotion carried the night as Memphis outscored East Carolina 19-8 in the final minutes and prevailed 79-69 to hand the Pirates their fourth straight defeat.
ECU held a slim lead for eight minutes of the second half, but a series of missed Pirate shots and two key three pointers from Tiger senior Jeremiah Martin shifted the momentum permanently to the visiting team.
Martin finished with a game-leading 31 points, followed by ECU’s Seth LeDay with 15.
The second-half shooting statistics were significant — ECU shot 33.3 percent after halftime and Memphis made 54.2 percent — but the most glaring deficit didn’t show up in the box score. In the end, ECU head coach Joe Dooley said, the game came down to an experience disparity. All five of the Tigers’ starters are seniors, but the only senior who contributes significant minutes for the Pirates, guard Isaac Fleming, left the game at the 12:25 mark in the first half with an apparent concussion.
“Obviously, one of the big differences, you’ve got a guy like Martin who jumps up and makes plays, and that’s what seniors should do,” Dooley said. “That’s hopefully where we’ll evolve to in the future, is older guys making plays and teaching younger guys how to play through some stuff … . We’ve got to get to the point where we have upperclassmen. We need to get to the point where we’ve got retention and development.”
The Pirates missed too many open shots on the perimeter, Dooley said, converting just 20 percent from beyond the three-point line. But they presented a balanced scoring attack when the ball did find the basket. Tyler Foster, Seth LeDay, Shawn Williams, K.J. Davis and Jayden Gardner all finished the game in double figures, with LeDay adding 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season.
With a defensive game plan centered on containing Gardner, the Memphis team stymied ECU’s star freshman for the first 18 minutes of the game. When Gardner finally broke out for four straight points in the final minutes before halftime, it signified a momentum shift that carried over into the second half until the Pirates’ shots stopped falling with eight minutes remaining.
“I think the guys have showed some resiliency and some toughness,” Dooley said. “I haven’t had to get on them about effort. We don’t always play unbelievably smart, but I don’t think we’re not playing hard. I think we’re playing hard and trying to win the game.”
Martin, who Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway calls the best player in the American Athletic Conference, said that he has carried with him the memory of last year’s 88-85 Pirate overtime win over the Tigers in Minges, a game in which Williams scored 30 points. At one point in the second half Wednesday, Hardaway told Martin that he would have to put the team on his back, which is exactly what he did.
“It’s definitely been on my mind, I’ve been trying to get revenge,” Martin said. “Last year, we took a bad loss we should have won. That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about since last year.”
Hardaway, in his first season as the Memphis head coach, said that despite the difference in experience between the two squads he was impressed with ECU’s toughness and the strong leadership that Dooley has brought to the program. Hardaway noticed, during warm-ups on Wednesday night, that despite the Pirates’ struggles this season they were out there going as hard as they could.
“They have a workmanlike attitude,” he said. “Even though they’re not as deep as they want to be right now, Coach Dooley’s doing a good job of keeping these guys focused on what they need to focus on and playing their hearts out. That’s what I really love about this team. He’s going to build a great program here, because he’s competitive enough and the guys are listening to him.”