GREENVILLE — East Carolina coach Joe Dooley got his 200th career win in monumental fashion as the Pirates clearly outplayed No. 5 Houston in an 82-73 stunner on Wednesday night.
Jayden Gardner had 21 points, a game-high 15 rebounds and four assists as ECU stopped a 5-game losing streak with its first triumph in 2021. The Pirates had not beaten a ranked team since nipping No. 13 Marquette with Dwyane Wade, 73-70, on Dec. 30, 2002. ECU had dropped 33 straight to ranked opponents.
The game concluded with the ball in Gardner’s hands on one of his 13 defensive rebounds.
“We’ve gone through so much adversity,” Gardner said. ” … It was tough. We just had to get back in our rhythm.”
The Pirates were 7-1 overall and 1-1 in the American Athletic Conference after a 68-58 home win over Tulane on Dec. 22. Then a myriad of COVID issues contributed to a downturn.
The Cougars saw an 8-game winning streak end as they were outscored, 45-33, in the second half. Houston (15-2, 10-2 AAC) had beaten foes by an average of 18.5 points in January and was favored by 16.5 points coming into the contest without fans in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum.
From a tie at 51, ECU (8-6, 2-6 AAC) went ahead to stay on a pullup jumper in the paint by Tristen Newton with 12:11 to go.
The Pirates did not have a field goal over the last 4:23 as the Cougars started fouling to stop the clock.
“We came into the game believing we could win,” said Newton, who had 10 points and six assists. “We were up 10 — I think it was 67-57 — and then they started fouling. We were like, ‘We got this.’ Keep knocking down free throws and get rebounds.”
The Cougars were averaging 10 more rebounds per game than opponents, which ranked seventh among NCAA Division I teams. ECU limited the visitors to a slight 37-36 advantage on the boards.
Houston’s defensive field goal percentage was a nation’s best 36.5 percent, but the Pirates hit 27 of 57 for 47.4 percent, including 11 of 24 from behind the arc for 45.8 percent.
ECU dropped 17 of 24 at the line.
The Pirates handled Houston’s extended pressure and committed just seven turnovers. ECU accumulated 20 assists.
“The guys played to win, which is most important, not just played hard,” Dooley said. ” … I thought we had a lot of guys step up. … It was a real good team effort, especially with some guys down.”
Brandon Suggs was on the sideline in street clothes and Tyrie Jackson went out with an injury.
DeJon Jarreau led Houston with 25 points and five assists. Marcus Sasser added 17 points. Justin Gorham had 11 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.
Tremont Robinson-White hit 5 of 6 on 3-point tries for the Pirates and finished with 17 points. J.J. Miles had 14 points before picking up his fifth foul and Bitumba Baruti added 13 points. Ludgy Debaut had four points and Jackson sank a 3-pointer.
ECU visits Memphis on Saturday at 2 p.m. The Tigers (11-6, 7-3) took an 80-53 victory in Greenville on Jan. 24 and will be looking to follow up on a 75-61 home win over Central Florida on Wednesday night.
The historic conquest for the Pirates will have even greater value if ECU can use it as a springboard and not allow the feat to become a singular, shining moment.
Dooley has been part of a lot of great accomplishments. He was an assistant at ECU in 1993, the last time the Pirates made the NCAA Tournament. He was an assistant at Kansas when the Jayhawks won the national title in 2008. He guided Florida Gulf Coast to multiple postseason appearances as head coach.
“Hopefully, it’s something we can build on,” Dooley said Wednesday night after being emphatically congratulated by Houston coach and Laurinburg native Kelvin Sampson . “You’ve got to win every day in practice. You can’t be one day on and one day off. I like to see the guys get rewarded because they’ve never really experienced this since they’ve been here.”