In a season of highs and lows, the East Carolina basketball team hosted Houston Wednesday with hopes of building another plateau from Saturday’s victory against Tulane, but that goal was thwarted by an unyielding force in the form of a young, talented Houston team.
CU (9-12, 2-5 AAC) never trailed by more than twelve points, but the Pirates couldn’t match the Cougars’ offensive output and concluded January with a 69-59 loss.
ECU’s play in the first ten minutes was distinguished more by what they prevented than by what they did. The home team defended aggressively, holding Houston to just 16 points by the eight-minute mark and allowing only one second-chance basket in the first half.
But midway through the quarter, the nationally-ranked Cougars started to establish a rhythm, putting together a 12-1 run while ECU struggled to make headway offensively.
Every Pirate but sophomore Jayden Gardner faltered at the basket, with the team scoring only 21 points in the half and Gardner claiming 15 of those.
Head coach Joe Dooley said ECU’s ineffectiveness from the three-point line (1-of-13 in the first half and 3-of-10 in the second) made it difficult to build momentum, but early struggles from the free throw line and in the paint were just as destructive. The Pirates missed the front half of four one-and-ones and five layups in the early minutes.
“One of the things when you play Houston is, they’re not going to help you,” Dooley said. “You have to help yourself, because they don’t give you anything. I think some of the things we needed to do we did, and some of the things that we needed to do to help ourselves we didn’t do. In the first half it was layups and free throws. Obviously when you’re throwing 4 of 23 from the three-point line you didn’t do enough to help yourself. There’s no margin for error against them. If you don’t do some of those things, you’re not going to be able to win the game.”
Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said he ditched his game plan three minutes into the contest, then discarded Plan B as well. The chief reason he was forced to improvise was the play of Gardner, who finished with 29 points and 19 rebounds and always seemed to be in the right place to foil the Cougars.
Houston (17-4, 7-1 AAC) has faced off against Oregon, South Carolina, Oklahoma State and top conference teams like Southern Methodist and Wichita State this season, but no other opposing player has given the Cougars as much trouble as Gardner did Wednesday.
“I just love Jayden Gardner,” Sampson said. “That kid, if you could just take a stamp and put ‘winner’ on him, that’s what he is. He’s just a winner. We’ve played against a lot of teams, but Gardner is the best player we’ve played against. We’ve played against nobody that is more difficult, because you don’t know who to put on him.”
Sampson said that ECU is far improved from last season. The Laurinburg native and Pembroke State alum said that he sees the Pirates playing hard for their coach and believes that Dooley will get the program where the Pirate Nation wants it to go, even if the American Athletic Conference is deeper than it’s been in a long time and every night is a battle.
“This is a hard league to rebuild in, because everybody’s good,” he said. “This league wasn’t nearly as good last year. The bottom’s better and the middle’s better. Last year there was a clear demarcation point in the league; this year there’s not.”
As the Pirates look to the final third of the schedule, Gardner said they need to find a way to pull themselves up when shots aren’t falling.
The season so far has been one of extremes, and as the team matures it needs to find stability between those peaks and valleys.
“Last game we were hot; this game we were cold,” Gardner said. “We’ve just got to be consistent. Unfortunately, we have those games. It’s all or nothing. It’s all going one night, or it’s not going at all. We don’t have a medium right now. We need to find that medium.”