East Carolina has little in the way of momentum going into tonight’s 9 p.m. contest at Memphis (ESPN2). The hosts have some significant motivation in their favor.
A matchup with the Tigers on Jan. 15 in Greenville provided the high point thus far of the 2021-22 season as Brandon Suggs scored at the buzzer for a 72-71 Pirates win. ECU trailed by as many as 19 points in the first half.
Since the euphoria of that triumph before 5,107 in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum, the Pirates have seen a 20-point lead disappear in a 92-85 overtime loss at home to Central Florida on Jan. 18 and been the victims in a 79-36 blowout at Houston on Saturday.
The circumstances are similar tonight to those that were in play for the Cougars — a stunning setback in Greenville in the previous meeting with ECU. Houston had not forgotten an 82-73 loss to the Pirates on Feb. 3 of last season. The Cougars recovered to make a run to the Final Four. Houston is currently ranked No, 7 nationally. Its athleticism and aggressiveness on defense helped hold ECU to 16 percent field goal shooting.
ECU was limited to one of 19 from beyond the arc in its last outing. Suggs was out with an ankle injury.
“I thought this was the best defense this team has played,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson after his team improved to 17-2 overall and 6-0 in the AAC.
Sampson cautioned against reading too much into the dominance his team displayed.
“Statistics can get it wrong sometimes,” said Sampson, who grew up in Robeson County. “ECU is a lot better. They have a good team this year. Neither us or ECU should be judged. I have a lot of respect for (Coach) Joe Dooley, and the ECU players. They are having a great year.
“They were seven points behind UCF the other night where UCF made nine out of 10 3-pointers. ECU beat Memphis. ECU was 2-2 in the conference, and they would have been 3-2 in the conference if they beat UCF. ECU has been playing well. They lost a couple of tough games to nonconference teams, and ECU’s program is taking a step forward.
“After losing their best player (Jayden Gardner), they still get better. In fact, they are better this year than they were last year.
“(Saturday) is one of the nights where we are not as good as we play, and they are not as bad as they play. One team starts playing downhill, and the other team plays uphill like tonight is one example.”
Ball movement was an issue Dooley cited in his postgame remarks Saturday on the Pirate Radio Network.
“You have to move the ball side to side,” Dooley said. “From the beginning of the game, we dribbled it in place. We couldn’t get open.”
ECU was outrebounded, 49-33.
“We are minus 16 on the backboard, which doesn’t help,” Dooley said. ” … We only had eight field goals, which will obviously tilt the rebounding numbers. But we did a poor job preparing them and we’ve got to figure that out very quickly.”
After traveling home Sunday and taking a day off, as required, on Monday, the Pirates began preparing for tonight’s challenge on Tuesday.
Some predicted the Tigers to be the top team in the AAC this season. Memphis is 10-8 overall and 4-4 in league play after ending a 3-game losing streak with an 83-81 win at Tulsa on Sunday.
Tigers coach Penny Hardaway has cited injuries as a factor in falling short of expectations. Hardaway responded with some profanity after a talk-show host and columnist asked him if he had lost confidence in his coaching ability following a 70-62 home loss to Southern Methodist on Jan. 20. Hardaway subsequently apologized.
The Commercial-Appeal of Memphis reported on Memphis’s mindset with the Pirates coming to town.
“Obviously, everyone saw the game at ECU (and) how we lost at the end (after having) a 19-point lead,” Hardaway said. “It just has to be personal when they come here on Thursday.”
If the Pirates are to compete tonight, a return to productivity by transfer Vance Jackson would appear essential.
Jackson had just two points in the loss to UCF. He managed five points at Houston. His season high of 35 points on Jan. 12 in a 79-71 setback at Cincinnati was followed by 17 points in the first meeting with Memphis.
Jackson has played at Connecticut, New Mexico and Arkansas. Fellow transfer Alanzo Frink, who came from South Carolina, has stepped up with double-figure scoring in three of the last five games.
Measuring the portal
Sampson’s assertion that ECU is a better team this season than last comes after substantial traffic in the transfer portal. Jackson and Frink are on the plus side for the Pirates. The contributions of Wynston Tabbs (Boston College) are on hold after season-squelching surgery.
Gardner is averaging 14.0 points and 6.7 rebounds for Virginia (12-8, 6-4 ACC).
Noah Farrakhan is making the most of his new start, averaging 16.2 points for Eastern Michigan.
ECU is 11-7 overall and 2-4 in the AAC with a significant disparity in performance based on location. The Pirates are 10-1 at home, 0-3 on the road and 1-3 on neutral courts.
ECU’s lone win at Memphis in the FedEx Forum came on Jan. 24, 2016, when Prince Williams made two free throws with 4.1 seconds left for an 84-83 victory. B.J. Tyson had 26 points in that triumph, Williams tallied 20 and Kentrell Barkley added 15.
ECU will be home Sunday for a noon start against Cincinnati.