The East Carolina men’s basketball team has played two games away from Minges Coliseum this season. And just as it did less than a week ago, the Pirates rallied from behind to defeat the Norfolk State Spartans, 76-74, in the first round of the NIT Tip-off at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Trailing 64-47 with less than 9 minutes left, senior shooting guard Paris Roberts-Campbell led the charge by draining the Pirates’ (4-0) first three-pointer of the second half at the 8:50 mark. That started a 23-4 run that culminated with Roberts-Campbell hitting another three to put ECU in the lead at 70-68.
Then, with the game tied at 72, he came through again by drawing contact and converting a three-point play. Roberts-Campbell scored 9 of ECU’s last 11 points and finished with a game-best 22 points.
Norfolk State’s (2-2) Pendarvis Williams, who had a team-best 18 points, could not get his running teardrop to fall as time expired – thus completing ECU’s third largest comeback in school history.
“We looked sloppy at times, we’re young, (and) we got discombobulated for periods of time, but they competed and found a way at the end,” said ECU coach Jeff Lebo. “I don’t really know how on some of the wins we’ve gotten or how we did it, but we did it.”
Aside from Roberts-Campbell, sophomore forward Michael Zangari added a career-high 16 points to go along with four rebounds and senior sharpshooter Akeem Richmond caught fire from beyond the arc during a few stretches Monday – shooting 5-of-16 on 3’s for 17 points.
But down the stretch, it was clear that if the Pirates were going to win, it would have to behind their two seniors: Roberts-Campbell and Richmond. Once again, they came through. Only this time, it wasn’t Richmond hitting the last-minute shots, rather Roberts-Campbell.
“(Assistant) coach (Ken) Potosnak told me to get aggressive with about 10 minutes left,” said Roberts-Campbell of the cause on his offensive outburst. “I don’t think I really forced anything, I just found my spots and played with more energy.”
(Akeem Richmond celebrates the improbable victory)
Early on, it didn’t look like the Pirates would need a comeback at all. In fact, they came out of the gate firing and hit their first three shots to jump in front 8-2.
That was soon followed by back-to-back 3’s by Richmond to push ECU’s lead back to 14-4. Richmond made three of his eight attempts from beyond the arc in the first half – each of which occurred in the game’s first five minutes.
It wasn’t until ECU led, 27-14, that Norfolk State started to string some plays together. Its formula to success: beat the Pirates inside.
The Spartans went on a 12-3 run to cut the deficit to just three – with 10 of those points stemming off pounding the ball down low into the interior. At the end of the game, they dominated ECU on the glass, 45-33, and scored 50 points in the paint.
Despite Norfolk State’s late-spurt and a buzzer-beating jumper by senior guard Malcolm Hawkins, ECU went into half-time leading by a point, 35-34.
When the second half began, it appeared the Spartans were going to run away with the game. Not only did it capture its first lead of the game, rather Norfolk State reeled off an 18-5 run, including Hawkins’ last-second shot, which stretched their lead to 50-40. Hawkins would finish with 16 points on 7-of-16 shooting.
Before ECU’s large rally in the final nine minutes, it was Zangari that kept the game in reach for the Pirates. He scored five of the team’s next seven points and shot a solid 9-of-12 from the free throw line.
“We really needed an inside presence. Nobody was really scoring inside, so I was just trying to stay aggressive and the guys kept coming to me,” said Zangari.
Remarkably, ECU was able to win despite its collective struggles in the paint and season-high 18 turnovers.
The Pirates’ next opponent are the No. 6 ranked Duke Blue Devils (3-1), who routed UNC-Asheville, 91-55, in its first round game. The winner of tomorrow’s game will advance in the tournament and earn a trip to Madison Square Garden.
“When you get a chance to play against Duke in Cameron Indoor, it’s a dream come-true for these guys and you get to play to play in this environment and this stage,” said Lebo.