A tale of two halves is how Southern Methodist University (12-3, 2-1 AAC) head basketball coach Tim Jankovich described Saturday’s matchup with the East Carolina University Pirates (8-8, 2-1 AAC) inside Minges Coliseum. A tepid first half for ECU exploded in a torrent of made three-point baskets that aided in the Pirates’ 71-68 upset of SMU.
“Obviously a good win for our guys,” ECU head coach Joe Dooley said. “I thought we scratched and clawed, we got off to a good start then I thought we got very lethargic. We stopped cutting, we stopped doing what got us the lead. Obviously SMU is very talented offensively and they put us in harm's way. I thought the guys responded at halftime and we rallied, just chipped away, chipped away and obviously we had some guys make big plays.”
Through this season’s first 15 games, three-point shooting has not been what Dooley’s Pirates have hung their hats on. Entering the afternoon, ECU found themselves at the bottom of the American Athletic Conference shooting 29.1% from long-range. That number, while lackluster, did represent an improvement over the 28.4% effort last year’s version of the Pirates posted during a 10-win season.
To combat that issue, Dooley recruited junior guard J.J. Miles and freshman guard Tristen Newton, as well as a slew of other newcomers to the roster. At Cape Fear Community College, Miles racked up 92 made three-point baskets while Newton scored well over 3,000 points in his four high school seasons at Burges High School in El Paso, Texas.
Tabbed with playing an SMU squad that could have recruited him, Newton and the Pirates went toe-to-toe with the Mustangs for 40 minutes and walked out of Minges victorious.
With a rocking crowd at tip-off, the Pirates wasted very little time in jumping all over the Mustangs. Barely three minutes into the game, Jankovich was taking an SMU timeout to stem an ECU tide that had quickly mounted an 11-3 lead.
On the back of three made three-point baskets, two from junior guard Tyrie Jackson, ECU held an advantage for almost the first seven minutes of game action.
The Mustangs, however, did not get 12 wins on the season by staying quiet offensively. Entering the game, SMU was averaging north of 78 points per contest and a lofty 47.5% from the field. Tapping into those numbers, the Mustangs surged back ahead of the Pirates, taking a 33-22 lead with under three minutes remaining in the half.
As much as the Mustangs’ surge was their offense waking up, the Pirates did very little to get in their way. Fourteen of SMU’s 38 first half points came inside the painted area as they snatched six offensive rebounds and hit a variety of high-percentage shots around the basket.
After jumping out to an early lead, the Pirates struggled to find points. At the 6:24 media timeout, ECU was shooting 44% from the field, including 4-of-9 from long-range. By halftime, however, that first number had shrunk to 33% as the Mustangs galloped out to an 11-point halftime advantage.
Fairly quiet in the first half, sophomore forward Jayden Gardner was just 3-of-9 with six points at the halftime break while Jackson reached double digits with 11 points.
While definitely not their worst shooting half of the season, it was clear the Pirates would need to make some big time shots to get back into the game. Big time shots they made.
Similar to the first half, the Pirates used the first three minutes of the final 20 to reel off a 7-0 run that drew them to within six points. Despite SMU lengthening the lead back out, Newton insured the Pirates would not go quietly into the night.
“Give them a lot of credit,” Jankovich said. “I thought we helped them by the way we started the half. When you’ve established that kind of lead, they were struggling to score the first half, to allow them to shoot some wide open horse shots to start the second half, I think that was our biggest mistake and gave them a whole other mentality.”
A pair of clutch three-pointers got ECU back into business, kicking off an explosive run for the home squad. At the under 12 minute media timeout, the Pirates were shooting 50% (8-of-16) from the field for the half, including 4-of-8 from three-point range. The law of averages will tell that number should not have held, but it did.
The SMU advantage down to two points at the 11:48 mark, ECU caught a couple of glimpses at the lead. At 55-54 Pirates with 7:50 left to play, it was clear Dooley’s squad was not going away without a fight.
Trailing 66-64 with less than 90 seconds remaining, sophomore guard Tremont Robinson-White missed the second of a pair of free throws. Always around the hoop, however, Gardner scooped up the offensive rebound and stuck it back, drawing the game into a tie once again.
As the teams traded free throws, it became clear the Pirates would own the final full possession of regulation. Deadlocked at 68 with 12 seconds remaining, Jankovich called a timeout, giving both sides time to talk about the next play.
Something drawn up, the Pirates inbounded the ball. Robinson-White drove the length of the court, drawing defenders to himself before kicking the ball to a wide open Newton standing in the left corner.
With the shot, a crowd of Pirate faithful fans stood to its feet only to erupt in cheers and shouts when Newton’s would-be go-ahead three-pointer found the bottom of the net.
“We was running a play for Tremont to get downhill and he got downhill and three people went on him,” Newton said. “He just kicked it to me, it was a wide open shot.”
For Newton, it was his third three of the night and the Pirates’ 11th on the afternoon. Jackson and Miles also made three shots each from long-range. All told, seven threes were made by the Pirates in the second half on Saturday as ECU shot 41.2% from triple land in the final 20 minutes.
That number was bested by ECU’s 50% (16-of-32) effort from the field in the second half as the Pirates finished the night shooting 42.9% from the field (24-of-56) and 39.3% (11-of-28) from long-range.
Aside from his key offensive rebound and putback, one could say Gardner had somewhat of a quiet game. Nevertheless he finished with 20 points, his eighth straight game of reaching that plateau, and nine rebounds.
Also in double figures, the trio of Jackson, Robinson-White and Newton each scored 11 points while Miles chipped in nine second half points.
“It was just nice to see my teammates make big plays down the stretch,” Gardner said. “J.J. hit a bunch of big shots in a row, Tristen hit a bunch of big shots, Pig (Tyrie Jackson) started out early hot. So it’s just nice to see all the guys gaining confidence. Like I touched on last game, this team hasn’t reached its ceiling yet, we’re going to keep getting better and better.”
Following a first half in which they scored only 27 points and turned the ball over six times, the Pirates outscored SMU 44-30 and committed only two second half turnovers. Twenty of those points came from bench players, including Newton and Miles while ECU racked up 10 second chance points in the final 20 minutes of action, perhaps none bigger than Gardner’s putback on the missed free throw.
“Second half, I thought the guys did a nice job of driving,” Dooley said. “I thought the ball in the second half moved a lot better, it got side-to-side a lot more than it did in the first half.”
The Pirates will be back in action on Wednesday when they wrap-up a three-game homestand and welcome in the University of Tulsa (10-6, 2-1 AAC). Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. inside Minges Coliseum.