After finishing the season under the .500 mark for its sixth straight season, the East Carolina University men’s basketball team finished its season with a 57-73 loss to Wichita State University Thursday night.
ECU (10-21, 3-15 AAC) battled hard in the first half against the Shockers as it only trailed by four with five minutes to go in the period, 20-24. Wichita State finished the half on a 15-7 run to lead 39-27 at halftime over the Pirates. The Shockers went up by as much as 27 points in the second half and won 73-57 to end the Pirates’ season.
For the second straight season, ECU finished with only 10 wins. The Pirates went 9-9 at home and 1-11 on the road. There was a difference between this year’s team and last year’s and that difference was shown in how competitive the team was each and every night.
“We were way more competitive,” senior guard Isaac Fleming said. “There were not a lot of egos on the team. We’re all fighting for each other and even though we could not really show it with our record, I feel like if you came out and watched us you could see how much harder we played and how much more passion was put into the game.”
The biggest headline entering the 2018-2019 season was seeing how ECU would play with new head coach Joe Dooley. The team was able to handle the transition in the off season and become a more improved and competitive team than what it was under head coach Jeff Lebo and interim head coach Michael Perry.
“We were a close-knit group so we were there for each other,” senior guard Addison Hill said. “When Dooley got here it was pretty smooth with how everyone handled that transition, but it gave us a chance to go through adversity and grow. When he first got here, he instilled that competitiveness in us from the get go.”
The Pirates finished the regular season with a 7-5 record during non-conference play. Nine of the 12 games were played at home. Four of the seven wins were by double digits and the other three were decided by six points or less. ECU lost two games at home in nail-biters during non-conference play.
It lost to James Madison University 72-73 on a buzzer beating floater from JMU redshirt senior guard Stuckey Mosley back on Nov. 9. The other team the Pirates lost to at home before AAC play was High Point University when it took a 52-55 loss at home on Nov. 24.
ECU came into conference play with expectations to surpass the 10-20 overall record and 4-14 record it had in conference during the 2017-2018 season. The Pirates did the unthinkable and pulled out a 73-71 win at home against the 2018 defending AAC tournament champion University of Cincinnati (28-6, 14-4 AAC) on Jan. 5.
ECU made its presence known in the conference after that win, but ended up getting two more wins which both came against the University of Tulane (4-27, 0-18 AAC) 66-65 at home on Jan. 31 and 85-81 on Feb. 23 on the road.
Freshman forward Jayden Gardner was the biggest surprise of the season for Pirate fans and spectators. Gardner was named AAC Freshman-of-the-Week five times during the year and was named to the American All-Freshman team. Gardner scored more than 20 points seven times this year, and recorded nine double doubles in points and rebounds. Gardner scored at least 30 points three times highlighted by a 35-point, 20-rebound effort in the loss to University of Central Florida on Jan. 13. Gardner averaged 15.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game for the Pirates.
Sophomore guard Shawn Williams who was the conference freshman-of-the-year in 2018, increased in his scoring average from a year ago to backup Gardner in scoring especially from the three-point line, but dropped in terms of shooting percentages. Williams had 15 games where he made at least two three-point baskets and nine games where he knocked down at least four three-pointers. Williams finished the year averaging 12.6 points per game shooting 37 percent from the field and 34 percent from three. Williams averaged 12.4 points as a freshman but shot 40 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from three.
Looking at the losses the team took, they were more competitive than fans and spectators imagined. There were games where ECU trailed by as much as 20 points but fought back to where it would end up trailing by one before losing in the end. That was evident in the 74-85 loss it took on Jan. 16 to Temple University. Their record might not show improvement, but each game showed that the Pirates can play well enough to go on big runs.
“I look at the regular season in a bunch of different ways,” Dooley said. “I am a statistical type of person so when I looked at Kenpom before the season, stats did not lie. We did not have a lot of returning points or returning guys and I would say that we have gotten better. We are better than what we were in November, now the flipside to that is the teams we are playing are a lot better. I think the guys have gotten a little bit more familiarity.”
The men’s basketball team moved forward in terms of improving on the court as a team. With Fleming who recorded the first two triple doubles in school history, Hill and senior forward Justice Obasohan leaving, Dooley will have to find pieces that can fill that gap in the offseason and perhaps make the team ready to make a run during the 2019-2020 school year.