East Carolina University men’s basketball (0-0, 0-0 American Athletic Conference) won a nailbiter against Mercer University (0-0, 0-0 Southern Conference) with a 16 point comeback that led to a 77-75 victory on Nov. 8 with a 7 p.m. tipoff for the Pirates’ first game of the 2022-2023 season in Minges Coliseum in Greenville, North Carolina.
The fans in Minges were on their feet and loud to start the season as the starting lineups were announced.
“The truth be known, we don't win the game without the fans,” Head Coach Micheal Schwartz said during the post game conference. “They are the ones that brought their energy and excitement from tip off to buzzer. I’m just so thankful for the fans here.”
The Pirates starting lineup included sophomore guard RJ Felton, sophomore guard Javon Small, sophomore guard Quentin Diboundje, freshman guard Saxby Sunderland, with sophomore forward Brandon Johnson rounding out the Pirates starting lineup.
Mercer’s starting lineup featured senior guard Shawn Walker Jr., senior guard Kamar Robertson, graduate student forward Luis Hurtado Jr., junior forward Jalyn McCreary, and freshman center David Craig.
The era of Coach Schwartz has begun for ECU, as the Pirates and the Bears lined up for the opening tip off to start the new college basketball season and the Bears obtained the first possession.
Three pointers were flowing in to start the game for the Pirates, Johnson drilled two three pointers to get ECU on the board early. In the post game conference, Johnson said he has been improving his jump shot in practice.
“I’ve been working on my shot since the spring,” Johnson said. “Everytime I get the ball and I am open, my coach and my teammates tell me to shoot it.”
The Bears would produce though, as they got up 10-6 with point contributions from Hurtado Jr. and McCreary.
Offensive struggles were prevalent early for the Pirates, with 13 minutes left to go in the first half, they were only 3-11 from the field. The Bears took advantage of this by going on a 15-2 offensive run to make the score 20-8. This surge by Mercer was blossomed by many players, but Robertson and Walker Jr.’s deep three pointers caused Schwartz to call a timeout.
Mercer’s Craig power on the defensive side of the ball was an issue for the Pirates early as he blocked Pirate junior guard Jaden Walker’s layup attempt and disrupted many shots in the paint using his 7‘2 frame. ECU’s Johnson kept his scoring going, making a tough layup assisted by freshman guard Kalib LaCount, Johnson accounted for eight of the Pirates first 14 points with 8:50 left to play in the first half.
LaCount scored his first college points with a three pointer that cut the Bears lead to only 10. Craig of the Bears was continuing to impact the game, drilling another short floater and grabbing multiple defensive rebounds for the Bears. Mercer was not slowing down on offense, as Walker Jr. made a layup and then a fadeaway mid range jump shot to give himself nine points in the game. This added onto Mercer’s lead making it 39-24 with 1:28 left in the half.
A spark was created for ECU with just over a minute to go as Small drove to the rim and threw down an emphatic dunk, that was followed shortly after with a steal by Felton and a jam of his own on the fastbreak. This completely shifted the momentum for the Pirates as this gave them life, Felton was able to reach in the passing lanes and gain another steal from the Bears.
Shots by LaCount and Small were no good but the Pirates were able to keep getting offensive rebounds and get second chances. With the clock counting down the last seconds of the half, Small drove to the cup and layed it in with the halftime buzzer sounding off, the shot was good and that marked the end of the first half. The score was 39-30, with the Mercer Bears holding the lead going into the second half.
“Key part of the game in our opinion was the end of the first half,” Schwartz said “When we were finally able to get our defensive pressure to the point where it would create some offense for us, and that gave us some momentum going into halftime.”
The second half action kicked off with several Bears players like McCreary and Walker Jr. having wide open shots but not being able to connect. The Pirates picked up where they left off as Small hit his defender with a shifty move and then hit a leaning three pointer.
Shortly after, Small was able to find contact around the rim and finish a contested layup that was called a foul, giving him a chance at a three point play. Small converted this layup giving him 12 points in the contest.
Craig of the Bears resumed his dominance, using his height to get an easy dunk down low, which was assisted by Hurtado Jr. ECU would not back down as Johnson came down the court and put down a posterizing dunk of his own.
A heated sequence of events kept going as on the next play, Mercer’s own Walker Jr. got fouled by Diboundje and made his layup attempt, giving him a three point play opportunity, in which he succeeded with.
The offense in the second half for the Pirates kept producing, as Walker contributed off the bench hitting a difficult three pointer, trimming the Bears lead to 48-44 with 14:49 left in the ball game. With the Bears on offense trying to make something happen, Debaut stripped Hurtado Jr. and took the ball all the way to the rim and threw down a fast break flush.
Both teams started to play physical, with the Bears' Roberston slashing to the rim and getting fouled by ECU’s Johnson, getting the and-one on the play and sinking the free throw to complete the three point play. Craig continued to show his height advantage, getting fed the ball and making a post hook. The next play, Small found Johnson in the corner who shot and hit the game tying three pointer. Both teams with 10:26 to go had 57 apiece.
The Bears biggest lead was 16 points, and was held at the 2:42 mark in the first half. The Pirates up to this point had not had a lead since the first minute of the game.
Mercer was not out of it though, as McCreary answered back with a crafty layup on the other end. ECU’s Small followed up with his second and-1 play of the day as McCreary fouled him on his layup attempt. Felton gave the Pirates a three point lead with a mid range jumper that was assisted by Johnson.
Small got the fans in Minges on their feet as he knocked down back to back three pointers with five minutes left in the game. Felton came up when the Pirates needed it and drained his first three pointer of the day to advance their lead to six. McCreary for the Bears would not be stopped as he dribbled to the rim and flew through the air for a dunk.
With time winding down in the competition, graduate student guard Jalen Cobb makes a much wanted three point basket for Mercer to trail the Pirates by just one. Small tallied his 23rd point of the night on a layup with two minutes remaining, setting a career high for him. This is a huge jump for Small as he only averaged 2 points per game last season as a freshman.
No points were scored for the next minute and a half of the contest, both teams were coming up short on shots in clutch time. ECU’s Johnson went cold at the free throw line and missed two out of two free throws at the line, creating even more chaos with the game windling down.
McCreary ended the scoring drought by scoring on a fastbreak, created by a steal by Cobb. This turnover by the Small was detrimental in this late game situation. This basket cut the deficit to just one, making the score 75-74 with 30 seconds to go.
“We wanted the ball in Javon’s (Small) hands late in that game, and Javon tried to hit Brandon (Johnson) on a pocket pass down the lane and it was a big turnover. Our guys are gonna grow up, and games like this allow them to grow up even faster,” Schwartz said.
The Bears then intentionally fouled Diboundje, making it a free throw game the rest of the way. Diboundje stepped up to the free throw line with the game on the line and swished two free throws, giving the Pirates a 77-74 lead.
With seven seconds left in the ball game, Mercer drew up a play to get Cobb wide open with an off ball screen to shoot a three to tie the game, but he barely missed. ECU’s Walker came down with the defensive rebound and got fouled immediately. The Bears still had hope as Walker missed both crucial free throws, allowing Hurtado Jr. to grab the miss and take it down the other end for a last second prayer.
Hurtado Jr. ended up getting fouled at halfcourt with two seconds left, which was a smart play by the Pirates as it prevented the Bears from getting a three point shot off. Hurtado Jr. got sent to the line for two more free throw attempts, he made the first, and then intentionally missed the second for his team to be able to get a quick rebound and put up a shot to send the game to overtime.
Freshman forward Ezra Ausar made one of the biggest plays of the game by grabbing the defensive rebound off the missed free throw. This rebound sealed the game as time expired and the Pirates won. Ausar only played two minutes in the contest, but came in and made a crucial game winning play to give Schwartz his first win under his tenure as a Pirate. The final score was 77-75.
Johnson and Small had very valuable outings, both setting career highs in scoring, leading the Pirates with 24 and 23 points respectively.
“Brandon (Johnson) was fantastic, I thought through the entire game,” Schwartz said. “Javon (Small) had a very strong second half when we really needed it.”
McCreary led the Bears in scoring, accumulating 18 points in the contest. Walker Jr. was also a helping factor for Mercer in the game, adding 12 points to the Bears 75 total.
The Pirates will next face Presbyterian University (1-0, 0-0 Big South Conference) at home in Minges Coliseum on Nov. 12 for a 4 p.m. tipoff that will be televised on ESPN+. Following Presbyterian, ECU will face Hampton at home on Nov. 16 before traveling down to Florida to play Indiana State in the Gulf Coast Showcase.