The magic of East Carolina’s Saturday victory over Southern Methodist was sparked by hot outside shooting, tenacious defense and a crowd that was dialed in.
An even larger crowd came to Minges Coliseum Wednesday in hopes of re-creating the wonder of last weekend, but repeated shooting mishaps, fouls and defensive missteps didn’t just disengage the crowd — they pulled a number of fans out of the building midway through the second half of the Pirates’ 65-49 loss to Tulsa.
“Like I said to our guys, ‘With the atmosphere comes expectations, and you’ve got to be able to handle those expectations,’” ECU head coach Joe Dooley said. “We played very immature tonight. We took our own crowd out of the game with our play. We never really got in a rhythm.”
The most hair-raising stat of the night was 2-of-26 from the three-point line, a painful contrast to the team’s 11-of-28 on threes in the SMU victory.
Dooley variously characterized his team’s play as “out of sorts,” “like we were running in mud,” and, “We just had a little bit of a faraway look at times.”
The challenge for a young team that is still learning how to win, Dooley said, is to figure out a path to victory even when, as sophomore Jayden Gardner said, “We couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean tonight.”
“I thought we had some open looks, and I said of the 24 shots, 15 of them had no chance of going in,” Dooley said. “We had a bunch of ‘em that weren’t even close.”
At tip-off, hope permeated the Minges crowd of 5,332 — the largest collection of fans in the arena in more than two years, since then-5th-ranked Wichita State came to Minges on January 11, 2018. The Pirates managed to stay at the Golden Hurricane’s heels through the first half and go into halftime tied 30-30 on a Miles James three-pointer.
The crowd remained optimistic in the early minutes of the second half, grabbing onto any big shot or tight score to pick up the volume. But when Tulsa went on an 11-0 run with 7:28 remaining in the game, the deflation in the arena was irreversible.
The Pirates were back on their heels early because the Golden Hurricane switched from man-to-man to a 3-2, Gardner said, giving them a scheme they haven’t seen this season and making it hard to find any kind of offensive rhythm. Gardner, who was named The American Player-of-the-Week Monday for the second time in less than a month, led the Pirates with 19 points, but 13 were from the free-throw line because Tulsa was so stifling in the paint.
“It was just a really off night on both sides of the ball,” Gardner said. “We struggled with switching during the year… We haven’t seen a lot of switching lately. We’ve just been playing against man-to-man, or a simple 2-3, and they run a 3-2, switching to man. They ran a lot of different things, and they were very successful tonight.”
As the night’s sluggishness worsened, Dooley said the repeated missed shots started to extend to every aspect of their game, including their defense. The Pirates turned the ball over thirteen times and allowed Tulsa 12 points off of fast breaks.
“I think for the first time in a while, it started affecting our defense,” Dooley said. “When you can’t score, I thought it frustrated us. We were just out of sorts. A lot of it I attribute to them, and a lot of it was self-inflicted too.
“When you go 2-for-26 from three, everything looks terrible.”
With road games against Cincinnati and SMU coming up next, Dooley’s task is to help diagnose and fix the issues that led to Wednesday’s loss and reinforce the truth that even a listless shooting night can result in a win if a team channels all of its shooting frustration into effective defense.
Gardner sees a refined role for himself, too — striving to be the kind of motivator on the floor that can help turn the spirits of a teammate who’s in a slump.
“I’ve just got to be a better vocal leader, telling guys, ‘The next one’s going in, and even if they don’t go in tonight, they’re going to go in the next time,’” he said.