Realistically, the East Carolina University (9-11, 3-4 AAC) men’s basketball had to overcome its rough shooting stretch at some point. After winning six of seven, ECU entered a three-game losing streak, while shooting 35.5% from the field. That number was even worse from three-point range where ECU failed to shoot better than 26.3% during that downturn.
As the old saying goes, however, “shooters shoot” and that is what the Pirates did on Saturday during their 81-62 win over Tulane University (10-9, 2-5) inside Minges Coliseum.
“Thought our defense got us off to a good start and then obviously when you make some shots, you get a little bit more confidence,” ECU head coach Joe Dooley said. “I thought with the exception of the first five or six minutes of the second half, I thought we actually played pretty well.”
Whether it was the warm embrace of their home court or just the law of averages swinging back in ECU’s favor, the Pirates were scorching hot nearly from beginning to end against the Green Wave.
Mark this one down as a Pirate DUB!@Jayy_Baller_1 lead the team with 27 points, followed by JJ Miles with 21. The Pirates will be back in action at home this Wednesday when we take on Houston at 7PM. #UpToTheChallenge 🏴☠️ pic.twitter.com/BvGmXgBdWA— ECU Men’s Basketball (@ecubasketball) January 26, 2020
Starting out 4-of-4 from the field helped the home squad build a 6-0 lead through the first three minutes and change, an advantage that would never cease. On the flip side Tulane began the contest 0-of-7 from the field, not making its first basket until nearly four minutes into the game.
While the Pirates were enjoying a 5-of-8 shooting effort (63%) halfway through the first half, Tulane had made only three field goals on 14 attempts, a dismal 21%. Despite that number naturally rising over the course of the game, the Green Wave could not match their 39% shooting clip they managed in six league games prior to Saturday.
Taking advantage of a rusty Tulane squad fresh off a bye week, ECU stretched its lead to 36-14 with little more than three minutes left in the half. On the back of 12 points from junior guard J.J. Miles and 11 from sophomore forward Jayden Gardner, the Pirates enjoyed a rare sizable lead.
Miles, who was brought in to rectify ECU’s shooting struggles following last season, entered Saturday’s contest shooting only 29.8% from long-range. While his fellow teammates have shared in that lackluster shooting for long periods of time this season, Miles broke out in a big way to drive his squad’s victory.
Four-of-six from distance in 15 first half minutes, Miles aided in the Pirates shooting 50% from three-point land during the opening half. Sophomore guard Tremont Robinson-White was the lone Pirate apart from Miles to drain a three in the first half while Gardner led the way with 13 points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes.
“It was just a good game, good shooting night for me,” Miles said. “Seeing the first couple go in gave me confidence and my teammates was able to find me when I was open.”
On 46% shooting, the Pirates rolled into the intermission up 40-19. With that outburst ECU set a season-high in points scored in any opening half this season. The previous mark, 39 points against James Madison University (8-12, 1-8 CAA), came back on Nov. 30, 2019.
With most statistical categories tilted in its favor, ECU enjoyed its biggest halftime advantage of the season and turned the ball over only six times while garnering seven steals. Perhaps most impressive, however, was the Pirates’ 11 first half assists on 12 made field goals. Outpacing Tulane by eight in that category ECU finished the night with 22 assists, yet another season-high.
Of course, it is easier to rack up assists when the majority of your baskets find the bottom of the net. Despite shooting below 42% on the year, the Pirates never lifted their collective foot off the gas pedal while Tulane attempted to make runs at the lead.
Separate runs of 6-0 and 7-0 four minutes apart following the break grabbed the attention of everyone in the coliseum. Dwindled to just 11 points with 13:32 to play, ECU’s advantage looked to be in jeopardy.
After a relatively quiet first half, graduate student guard Nic Thomas began taking over the offensive responsibilities for the Green Wave. His two first half three-pointers quickly turned into a 3-of-5 effort in the final 20 minutes as he racked up 11 points following the break.
Thomas, however, was not alone in his effort to cut ECU’s lead. Graduate student guard Christion Thompson shot 13 of his team’s 15 second half free throws, converting six of them to accompany his two field goals.
All told, the duo of Thomas and Thompson combined for 21 of Tulane’s 43 points down the stretch. Much needed as the Green Wave’s top two scorers managed just a combined 20 points on the evening, it would prove not enough.
“It was nice to respond when they cut it to 11,” Dooley said. “That was frustrating because we were very lackadaisical to start the second half. I think we turned it over on four of our first five possessions.”
Counter to Tulane’s run, Miles went to work. Finding open shots against a zone that would often be perfectly exploited by ECU’s ball movement, Miles knocked down open three after open three.
With 7:32 left in the game, Miles found himself sporting a career-high 21 points on the back of 7-of-9 shooting from long-range. Inside the line, he managed to go 0-of-5 but made up 70% of the Pirates’ 10 made three-point baskets on the evening.
Almost in the background, Gardner went a perfect 5-of-5 from the field in the second half, racking up 14 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes. For the game, Gardner notched his ninth double-double and 12th 20-plus point performance of the season.
Working against versions of a zone defense for most of the night, ECU used superior ball movement to keep Tulane in rotation. As had failed to be the case up until this point, the Pirates made their opponent pay for late rotations, knocking down 52% of their shots on Saturday.
“We really emphasize taking good shots,” Dooley said. “I thought for the most part tonight we took good shots. We had a stretch where we took a couple bad ones. He (Miles) took good open ones, matter of fact, he probably turned down two or three that I wish he would have shot. It makes the players look a lot better and makes us look a lot better when the ball goes in.”
From long-range, ECU used a 55.6% (5-of-9) effort in the second half to shoot 52.6% (10-of-19) from three over the span of 40 minutes. For the first time this season, ECU shot over 50% from three-point land and eclipsed 50% from the field for just the third time.
All told, Gardner and Miles each cracked the 20-point plateau with 27 and 21 respectively. Gardner finished with a team-high 13 rebounds while freshman guard Tristen Newton also worked his way into double figures with 13 points.
Only five Pirates scored more than three points on Saturday while that same number racked up at least three assists. Against a zone, ball movement and making shots is the key to success, two things the Pirates accomplished in convincing fashion for their ninth win of the campaign.
“The ball didn’t stick,” Dooley said. “I thought the guys tried to share it and move it. I thought we moved move freely tonight and looked a little bit more coherent offensively.”
The Pirates will be back in action on Wednesday against the University of Houston (15-4, 5-1 AAC) inside Minges Coliseum. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.