Several times this year East Carolina has been in tight games against high-quality competition and fallen short. There were the narrow losses at Duke and N.C. State and then a heart-breaking meltdown down the stretch against Southern Miss.
But despite its struggles in league-play and shortfalls in size, ECU’s effort has always been constant and visibly prevalent. That effort was on full display at Minges Coliseum throughout the Pirates’ 75-68 victory against Conference USA-leading Louisiana Tech Thursday night.
“We really emphasize being scrappy and just getting after it,” said ECU forward Michael Zangari after pulling down a career-high 15 rebounds. “We’re not going to lose a game because of effort. We’re down guys and got injuries and stuff, but it will never just be because of effort.”
ECU (14-13, 3-9 C-USA) and La. Tech (21-6, 9-3 C-USA) were even, 37-37, on the glass and the Pirates' zone defense limited C-USA’s top-scoring team to 38 percent shooting (24-for-64), but in spite of these impressive numbers, it still didn’t come easy for ECU in the latter stages of the game.
The Bulldogs desperately put together a 6-0 spurt that trimmed the Pirates’ lead to 68-66 with 1:50 remaining. However, instead of letting its grip on the game slip away as it had several times before, ECU outscored La. Tech 7-2 with clutch free throw shooting to seal the deal.
“It’s a big win for us and a big win for our program. (La. Tech) was a good basketball team, no doubt about it,” said ECU coach Jeff Lebo. “It’s nice to see them walk out here with beating somebody good. I think it is really helpful for them to know that this can happen.
“It happens all the time in college basketball. It wasn’t a fluke. I think we played well for 40 minutes in this basketball game.”
And it wasn’t leading scorer Akeem Richmond carrying the load offensively, although he did finish with 14 points. Rather, sophomore point guard Prince Williams was effective on his jumpers and attacked the rim for 15 points, while dishing out a career-high eight assists to just one turnover.
Thanks in large part to Williams’ passing, four Pirates scored in double-figures – led by Caleb White’s game-high 21 points – and Zangari had nine.
“When we were playing well, we were getting four guys into double-figures and we had that tonight. So, offensively, that was big for us,” said Lebo.
ECU actually started the game poorly shooting from the field (1-for-7), but while the Pirates were struggling early, C-USA’s top offensive team had problems with ECU’s zone defensive sets. However, the Bulldogs Achilles heel Thursday night was their woeful 7-for-28 shooting performance from three-point range.
“In think my line, verbatim, in the locker room five minutes before the game was ‘let’s not jack up 30 3’s,’” said La. Tech coach Michael White. “We weren’t able to collapse the zone enough. They did a good job of defending our actions – we didn’t get any easy ones around the basket.”
Trailing 5-2, White fueled a 12-0 run, with nine points of his own, to give ECU a lead it would not relinquish. White had 16 points in the first alone, while the Pirates owned a 21-15 rebounding edge. Zangari grabbed nine of them, including five of the team’s eight offensive rebounds.
Williams closed the half with a falling shot at the rim that went in as time expired. ECU went into the break leading 36-27.
Quiet for most of the first half, it wasn’t until the last 20 minutes that ECU’s two experienced leaders, Richmond and junior shooting guard Paris Roberts-Campbell, contributed offensively.
Following back-to-back 3’s from Campbell, the Pirates had their largest lead of the game, 44-31. He would finish with 14 points on 4-for-9 shooting. Richmond also dialed up a pair of 3’s in the second half in route to 11 points in the final 20 minutes.
“We really got to get Paris going for us. He’s the one guy that can really help us on the offensive end of the floor” Lebo said.
La. Tech shooting guard Kenyon McNeail came off the bench for a team-high 20 points and supplied five of the team’s seven made-three-pointers on Thursday.
ECU will return to action Saturday against the Rice Owls (7-18, 2-10 C-USA), who were tied with the Pirates for last place in the C-USA standings heading into the night, but the Owls lost 55-51 at Old Dominion Thursday. Tip-off time is scheduled for 5 p.m. at Minges Coliseum.