A trip to Chapel Hill to play in the Dean Smith Center carries a certain prestige to it, and some hostility if this was a regular season game for East Carolina University’s men's basketball team. But when the Pirates took the trip on Saturday, the teams might as well have been family.
Along with University of North Carolina at Wilmington and University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the teams competed in a round-robin scrimmage event, where the four teams faced off for roughly 12 minutes. More importantly, all the funds generated from this event went to Governor Roy Cooper’s Disaster Relief Fund, which distributes to nonprofit and faith-based organizations helping in relief efforts from Hurricane Matthew. Even though it's been more than a year since the catastrophe, it was estimated there was $1.5 billion in damage which hasn’t all been restored, so the need for help is clearly still there.
"This is something bigger than basketball; we can give back a little bit to people who have helped us in this state in the past," ECU head coach Jeff Lebo said. "It was a great thing for all of us to be able to do and be a part of, and really fun for our players also to be a part of this."
Beyond providing disaster relief, these three scrimmages gave the Pirates a chance to see some real-time action before Coppin State comes to Minges Coliseum for the season opener on Nov. 11.
The exhibition kicked off with ECU taking on the Tar Heels, the defending national champion. Then, after a quick break, ECU was back on to play Wilmington in the third period and finished with Greensboro in the fifth. In the combined action, ECU was outscored 60-57 and last year's top scorer Kentrell Barkley led the team with 18 points.
A major bright spot for the Pirates was the play of Hawaii transfer Isaac Fleming. With Jeremy Sheppard being suspended from the team on Friday, Fleming was left to pick up the pieces in the backcourt. He totaled 14 points while showing flashes of what he can bring this season. Fleming made back-to-back drives to the basket in the Wilmington scrimmage, scoring on both possessions while turning the second into an ‘and-one.’
"He played big for us, I like his game," Barkley said. "He's good at attacking the gaps and beating the big men down low. That helped us out today. He played with a lot of intensity as well."
The return to Chapel Hill carried extra meaning for Lebo, as well as UNCW's head coach C.B. McGrath and UNCG's head coach Wes Miller. All three have either played or coached at UNC at one point during their careers. Lebo played for the Tar Heels from 1985-89, Miller played from 2004-07 and McGrath played for Roy Williams at Kansas and was an assistant to Williams at UNC from 2003-17.
"It was really great for us to get a chance to do this with McGrath and Miller and obviously coach Williams," Lebo said. "It was his idea, and what a great idea for people who really are in dire need of help. We in North Carolina know and feel the effects of hurricanes, particularly in eastern North Carolina, where we are."
It isn't just these North Carolina schools that are playing a final exhibition game for disaster relief. More than 80 Division I programs are taking advantage of an NCAA waiver that allows schools to play an extra exhibition game, provided the proceeds go to disaster relief. That includes helping those affected by hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria this year and Matthew last year, along with the California wildfires this year and the mass shooting last month in Las Vegas, according to the press release.
The Pirates will have one final week of preparation before Coppin State comes to Greenville this Sunday. ECU is looking to mirror its fast start last season, getting off to a 4-1 record in its first five games.