FORT WORTH — East Carolina faced a 10-point deficit in the first half but rallied for its first win in the American Athletic Conference Tournament since 2017 by ousting South Florida, 73-58, on Thursday at Dickies Arena.
Jaden Walker had 22 points and 10 assists in the triumph. R.J. Felton had 22 points and a team-high seven rebounds.
Dave Kasanganay, who had just two 3-pointers all season, went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc and contributed 10 points. Freshman Ezra Ausar also had 10 points.
But it wasn’t offense that got the immediate attention of first-year Pirates coach Mike Schwartz after ECU advanced to a 1 p.m. quarterfinal on Friday against No. 1 Houston (29-2).
“Defense was what we knew we had to do to win this game,” said Schwartz via Zoom.
ECU (16-16) had lost twice to the Bulls (14-18) during the regular season but learned lessons from the setbacks.
“Both games we allowed them to go on 10-0, 12-0 runs that ended up being the difference in the game,” Schwartz said. “We couldn’t allow that.”
USF’s longest run was 6-0 and the Pirates also made an adjustment in terms of turnovers.
“If you can force some turnovers that’s probably the No. 1 thing you can do to stop a team from going on a run,” Schwartz said. “Defense was just such a huge aspect. Once we stopped turning the ball over ourselves in the first four minutes of the game, were able to set our defense.
“You can’t set your defense if you’re turning the ball over because they’re out running. Even if we didn’t make the shot, we could set our defense. … Our guys were excellent on that end.”
The Pirates had fewer turnovers, 10-14, and limited the Bulls to 36.7 percent shooting (22 for 60) while hitting 44.8 percent (26 for 58).
The matchup featured a 30-point swing after USF led 24-14 with 8:37 left in the first half. ECU forged ahead for a 73-53 advantage in the final minute.
Felton, who was hobbled Sunday in the regular season finale at Central Florida, had 16 points in the second half. Walker dealt out six assists in the last 20 minutes.
“Once we got through that little shaky start we had at the beginning of the game, the game started to slow down,” Walker said. “I was just looking for my teammates to be in the right spots. We were able to capitalize off that.”
Walker also grabbed six rebounds. Ludgy Debaut had four points and five rebounds. Brandon Johnson, who was limited to 21 minutes with foul trouble, had three points and six rebounds. Valentino Pinedo added two points.
Tyler Harris led the Bulls with 26 points. Russel Tchewa had 11 rebounds in the defeat.
“We tried to make him (Harris) take shots on our terms, which I think we did,” said Schwartz, who credited Debaut’s effort over 35 minutes in limiting Tchewa, who was averaging 11.3, to seven points.
The eighth-seeded Bulls were limited to their second lowest point total of the season by the ninth-seeded Pirates.
The ECU delegation at the postgame news conference wished the Lady Pirates well in the AAC championship game later Thursday.’
The ECU women rallied past Houston for a 46-44 win to secure an NCAA Tournament berth.