Rough shooting stretches are something that plagues the East Carolina University (9-12, 3-5 AAC) men’s basketball almost as frequently as the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. Shooting 42.2% from the field heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the University of Houston (17-4, 7-1 AAC), the Pirates failed to even manage that in a 69-59 loss to the Cougars.
“I think one of the things when you play Houston is they’re not going to help you so you have to help yourself because they don’t give you anything,” head coach Joe Dooley said. “I thought some of the things we needed to do we did, some of the things that we probably needed to help ourselves, we didn’t.”
Fresh off a sparkling effort from the field over the weekend, there was fleeting thought that perhaps the Pirates had found their stroke from outside. Led by junior guard J.J. Miles, who finished the night 7-of-9 from three-point range, ECU knocked down a combined 10 shots from long-range while simultaneously anchoring things down on the defensive side of the ball.
Culminating in a 19-point victory over Tulane University (10-10, 2-6 AAC), it was the perfect setup for success against was is perhaps the best defensive team in the American Athletic Conference in Houston.
The Cougars entered Wednesday holding opponents to 63.8 points per game and just 38.2% shooting, numbers that ranked inside the top-75 nationally. Against a team that struggles as much as ECU does shooting the basketball, Houston represented something of a worst case scenario for the Pirates.
Save for a gutsy performance from sophomore forward Jayden Gardner, points were hard to find for ECU.
It took nearly 12 minutes of game action for the Pirates to crack the 10-point threshold while Houston built a slim but effective lead. At the under four-minute media timeout, Houston led 24-20 while Gardner accounted for 15 of his club’s points on 7-of-12 shooting.
Shooting just 35% from the field and 1-of-9 from three-point range at that point, things would not trend any better for the Pirates as the game wore into its later portions.
Able to stem the tide for much of the first half, ECU often found themselves one or two shots away from making a run and perhaps regaining the advantage. A 12-1 run by Houston spanning the final four minutes of the first half, however, seemed to shatter those hopes, giving the Cougars a 33-21 lead at the break.
Of ECU’s 21 points in the first 20 minutes, 16 came from the right hand of Gardner who made seven of the Pirates’ nine field goals.
Houston, on the other hand, saw three players score at least six points as they shot 38% from the field and three-of-six from three-point range.
A huge factor coming into Wednesday night, the rebounding battle could not have been more lopsided in the opening half. Despite four rebounds from Gardner, the Cougars out-rebounded ECU by 10, matching their average season margin.
With five blocks, Houston limited ECU to 29% shooting and a lackluster 8% (1-of-13) from long-range. Having committed only two turnovers in the first half, ECU simply failed to make enough shots to stay competitive despite Houston failing to really stretch the lead.
“Just got to make shots at the end of the day,” Gardner said. “Last game we were hot, this game we were cold, just got to be consistent. Credit to them, they were really tough, they’re long, they challenged the shots and they got after it.”
The second half brought much more of the same for ECU. An uptick in shooting to 41% for the half allowed the Pirates to score 38 points in the final 20 minutes as they outscored Houston by a pair of points down the stretch.
From Gardner, the Pirates got 13 second half points on 4-of-7 shooting in the second half. More impressive, however, Gardner racked up 15 rebounds in 20 minutes, giving him 19 on the evening, one shy of tying a career-best.
Of those 15 rebounds, six came on the offensive glass, helping ECU accumulate eight second chance points and 10 points in the paint in the waning minutes.
“I just love Jayden Gardner,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “If you could just take a stamp and put winner on him, that’s what he is. There’s a lot of ways to evaluate rebounders but he just has great intangibles. Guys that can’t rebound, they’re usually not where the ball is but wherever the ball is, that’s usually where Jayden Gardner is.”
Gardner’s outburst in the second half allowed the Pirates to overcome their rebounding deficit. By games end, ECU matched Houston’s rebounding total at 43 while they grabbed one more offensive rebound than a top-five team in that category. In the second half alone, the Pirates pulled down 19 defensive rebounds to Houston’s 11 and nine offensive boards to the Cougars’ seven.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, the scoring column remained fairly even despite runs back-and-forth by both squads. Pushed to 21 points with six minutes remaining in the game, Houston’s advantage kicked off the stream of fans heading for exits.
Across the final six minutes, however, ECU outscored the Cougars 17-6, pulling the game back within 10 points. Credited to a full-court press employed by Dooley, ECU was able to pressure Houston and get the ball in Gardner’s hands.
Despite shooting a much improved 37% from the field in the second half, ECU allowed Houston to average 41% shooting as redshirt freshman guard Caleb Mills racked up 12 of his team’s 36 points in the final half.
On ECU’s side, the Pirates were whistled for 25 fouls which allowed the Cougars to make a number of and-one opportunities throughout the contest. Some better than others, there were a combined 49 fouls called on Wednesday evening, contributing to a slew of foul trouble for both sides.
Miles, who ended the night with five fouls, played only 23 minutes as a result of his foul trouble while freshman guard Tristen Newton and freshman forward/guard Brandon Suggs each garnered four fouls on the evening.
In the scoring department, Gardner was the lone Pirate immune to shooting problems. Of ECU’s 19 made field goals during the course of the game, Gardner made 11 and finished over 50% from the field. The remainder of his team went a combined 8-of-39 (21%) from the field and just 3-of-21 (14.3%) from long-range.
“The only person that can take confidence is yourself,” Dooley said. “So we’ve got to be mature enough and tough enough that when things don’t go right that you continue to play, you worry about playing the right way and getting better.”
Gardner, who ended the night tying his season-high in points with 29, accounted for 49% of his squad’s scoring as he also tied a career-high in offensive rebounds with seven.
While a good sign that ECU hung with Houston on the boards, it took more than 30 minutes for the Pirates’ offense to wake up and play at full vigor. By the time that happened, the Cougars had built a lead large enough to be impermeable against a late run.
“I really worry about our defense, I don’t worry about our offense,” Dooley said. “We worry whether it’s a good open shot or not and then the other thing we worry about is are we guarding. I thought our defense bent but we put too much pressure on our defense. Our defensive numbers were good enough in general.”
Headed on the road after back-to-back home tilts, the Pirates will face Temple University (10-10, 2-6 AAC) on Saturday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Tip-off between ECU and the Owls is scheduled for 6 p.m.