The East Carolina University (1-1, 0-0 AAC) men’s basketball team had three players score in double-digits on Friday night in Annapolis, Maryland, but allowed the United States Naval Academy (1-1, 0-0 Patriot) to battle back in the second half to win 62-57.
With so much turnover on the Pirates’ roster from last season, many of the storylines during the summer was how they would play as a group. In the season opener, head coach Joe Dooley’s squad looked sound, scoring 80 points against the Virginia Military Institute (0-2, 0-0 SoCo) in a double-digit win.
At home, the Pirates turned the ball over 13 times, with freshman guard Tristen Newton playing 34 minutes without coughing the ball up while adding 20 points.
Despite starting the 2019-2020 season in Minges Coliseum, six of the Pirates’ next seven games transpire away from Greenville, North Carolina. In the first of those away tilts, ECU, along with its freshmen, was able to take a first half lead into the locker room.
Up 29-23 at the break, ECU was shooting 40% (4-for-10) from the three-point line and turned 12 Navy turnovers into 14 points.
With sophomore forward Jayden Gardner on the bench for the first five minutes of the contest, the Pirates fought off runs by the Midshipmen, including a 7-0 run during the latter portion of the first half. That was due in large part to the Pirates’ ability to feed the ball inside to the painted area, getting Gardner more involved in the offense.
Junior guard J.J. Miles and Gardner paced ECU’s offense with seven points in the first half as both the Pirates and Midshipmen shot 39% from the floor.
That lead, however, was rather effortlessly dispatched with a 6-0 Navy run six minutes into the second half. Staked to a 41-40 lead at one point, the Pirates stemmed the tide before the Midshipmen ran the score to 43-40, taking their first lead of the game since the 15:17 mark of the first half.
“We led for 26 minutes, almost 27 minutes of the game,” Dooley said to Pirate Learfield IMG radio after the game. “I thought for some stretches that we played some good ball and then we had that stretch the last part of the game.”
Indeed, the game was tight for much of the duration, but after ECU suffered long scoring droughts late in the second half, Navy was able to take over control. From the 6:31 mark in the closing half to the 1:16 mark, Navy outscored ECU 13-4 to take a 56-51 lead that would eventually hold.
The problem for the Pirates was a lack of production from their leading scorer, Gardner. In the second half, the sophomore took just four shots and finished the half with eight points after converting all four of his free throws.
Paired with junior center Ludgy Debaut for much of the half in the painted area, the Midshipmen began keying on Gardner, doubling him whenever he touched the basketball. They were able to do that because, in the second half, ECU went stone cold from the perimeter.
The Pirates’ 4-for-10 effort from three-point land in the first half yielded to a 1-for-8 effort after half time, giving Navy little reason to guard ECU’s shooters tightly.
Conversely, the Pirates’ defense lost some of its step from the opening stanza and allowed high-percentage shot after high-percentage shot.
“I thought the story of the game was them driving the ball,” Dooley said.
Twelve of Navy’s 39 points in the second half came from the painted area while they got off 12 lay-up attempts and a dunk. Additionally, the Midshipmen hauled in five second half offensive rebounds, resulting in six second chance points.
It didn’t stop there, either. Of Navy’s 26 attempted free throws for the game, 23 of them came in the closing half. Sophomore guard Greg Summers shot 10 of those and converted eight of Navy’s 17 made free throws in the final 20 minutes.
In order to shoot that many free throws, the Pirates committed 19 fouls, compared to just seven from Navy.
“Some of them were boneheaded fouls, we fouled out at the half court twice, once in the first half and once in the second half,” Dooley said. “We did some of those things and with freshman you sort of understand that. But we keep talking about don’t foul for no reason.”
All told, the Pirates ended up shooting only 13 free throws versus Navy’s 26, while at the same time turning the ball over on 10 occasions in the second half and getting out rebounded 18-13.
Not even a week removed from having two players break the 20-point mark, the Pirates’ high watermark in scoring came from Gardner with 15. For the first time in his collegiate career, Gardner came off the bench and finished with eight rebounds and two assists to go along with his four turnovers.
Redshirt senior forward Seth LeDay and Miles also cracked the double-digit threshold with 11 and 10 points respectively.
Despite solid play from that trio, ECU’s inexperienced guards, Newton and Logan Curtis, combined for just four points in a total of 44 minutes of action.
“He (Tristen) and Logan both struggled tonight. Both are freshman point guards, they looked like freshman tonight,” Dooley said. “A little out of sync on the road. We had five assists, six turnovers out of our point guards, that’s not a good night. We need to get them where they’ll play with some confidence, but they also need to make sure that they get us into an offense and make sure they guard.”
With junior guard Tyrie Jackson and sophomore guard Tremont Robinson-White both currently out nursing injuries, the play of Newton and Curtis is magnified. In the season opener, they combined for 25 points and only one turnover in over 50 combined minutes of play, a stark contrast to what happened on Friday night against Navy.
Nevertheless, with a young team growing pains are expected. Predicted to be a tight game, the Pirates held the upper hand for much of the contest, but could not keep the basketball out of the paint in the second half while at the same time going cold as a team from beyond the arch.
Now sporting an even record, the Pirates will travel to Boone, North Carolina to face Appalachian State University (1-1, 0-0 Sun Belt). Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m. on Tuesday.