Kim McNeill knew that her opening campaign as East Carolina’s head women’s basketball coach would involve a matchup with a program with 18 NCAA Tournament appearances and a trip to the 2019 WNIT.
She might not have realized that it would also feature a high-decibel singalong to “Baby Shark.”
This wasn’t just any season opener. By moving its annual Education Day to the first game of the season, ECU bused in a program-record 6,905 fans who were on hand to watch the McNeill era begin in Minges Coliseum against a historically strong Middle Tennessee State team.
Despite a 30-22 halftime lead, the Pirates fell behind in the third and ended up just short in a furious late-game rally, losing 68-66 and giving their visitors something much more exciting than a typical Wednesday school schedule.
“I’m really proud of my team,” McNeill said. “We fought to the end. We showed fight, we showed growth. We challenged them, and they responded to the challenge. There are some areas we need to get a little better about, but if they can bring the energy every night, and they can bring the fight, then we can coach them.”
The Blue Raiders were difficult to stop in the second half, shooting 53.8 percent in the third quarter and 58.3 percent in the fourth. The Pirates were trailing by ten with six minutes left in the game, but scrappy defensive play — aided by the raucous young crowd — allowed them to inch within a basket of the visitors with a Lashonda Monk layup with 8.9 seconds left.
ECU then forced a turnover, and Monk, the Pirates’ leading scorer with 20 points, had the ball in her hands again with an opportunity to win the second straight Education Day game on a last-second basket.
Unfortunately, Monk’s three-point attempt fell short.
The Pirates recaptured the momentum in those final minutes, she said, but in the end, there just wasn’t enough time on the clock to write the happy ending for an arena full of children.
“I think we did kind of run out of time,” Monk said. “I think the crowd kind of hyped us up.”
Wednesday’s game marked the largest Education Day crowd in the history of the event, said Kasey Singer, ECU’s assistant director of marketing and fan development. Students came to Minges on school buses from 26 different schools throughout the county, and they reserved spots in the stands on a first-come, first-served basis by signing up online.
The noise level was so elevated early in the game that McNeill was yelling directions as loud as she could to her team, but she couldn’t be heard.
After a sluggish start resulting in a 18-14 deficit at the end of the first quarter, the Pirates got used to the deafening roar and started to execute. They opened the second quarter with a 10-0 run to build a quick six-point lead, then tweaked their defense to contribute to an ice-cold Blue Raiders offensive effort (MTSU only scored four points in the quarter.)
But halftime adjustments provided a potent boost to MTSU, which came out and outscored ECU 26-13 in the third period and connected on 3-of-8 three-pointers.
From scouting the Blue Raiders’ exhibition games, McNeill and the team were expecting a strong attack from behind the arc, so they sketched out their defensive plan accordingly. MTSU made good on 9-of-26 three-pointers for the day, while the Pirates only converted 1-of-13.
“There’s no secret, we’re not a three-point shooting team, that’s not our biggest strength,” McNeill said. “We can hit ‘em, but we’re not going to hang our hats on that. We’re going to hang our hats on defending, getting out in transition, utilizing our quickness, getting to the rim and hitting pull-ups.”
The Pirates didn’t take the loss lightly, McNeill said; the players were visibly disappointed, and their new coach took their reaction as a measure of how much they care about proving themselves. She assured them that the next few months of basketball will be measured on an upward slope.
With the defensive tenacity that led to 27 MTSU turnovers and 41 total rebounds she is convinced that ECU has the tools to climb that mountain.
“We’re not there yet, but I tell them every day the way we look today is not the way we’ll look in January and February, and if they can keep bringing this energy and keep bringing this effort, we will continue to get better,” she said. “The future looks good, and I hope everybody will stay with us and understand it’s a process. But this team will play hard every single night.”