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Freshman guard Tristen Newton dribbles the ball in a game earlier this season. 

On Tuesday, for the first time since Jan. 5, 2019, East Carolina University’s (7-8, 1-1 AAC) men’s basketball team defeated an American Athletic Conference opponent not named Tulane. In a 10-win season last year, the Pirates walked away with just three conference victories, two of which came against a Tulane squad that finished the campaign 0-18 in league play.

While not a pretty win by any stretch of the imagination, Tuesday’s 62-59 victory over the University of South Florida (8-8, 1-2 AAC) displayed, at times, just how good this ECU team can be. Up double digits at one point, ECU led for the vast majority of the 40 minutes of game action but was forced to make a big three-pointer and get key stops to close the game out.

“That’s a part of learning how to win,” head coach Joe Dooley said after the game according to ECUPirates.com. “The other night you’re in a pressure situation and you make a play or two and you don’t win because you made some bad plays and we made some plays, but we made enough good plays to finish this one out.”

Sophomore forward Jayden Gardner walked away with another 20-plus point performance, turning in 23 points and 10 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the campaign. Entering Saturday’s matchup with Southern Methodist University (12-2, 2-0 AAC), Gardner finds himself ranked inside the top-50 nationally in both points per game (21.4) and rebounds per game (9.3). Additionally, the sophomore leads the conference by a pretty hefty margin in scoring and represents the only Pirate in double figures at this point in the season.

Scoring 71 points per game, the Pirates needed only 62 to defeat a defensive-minded Bulls team. On Saturday, however, ECU will need to bring its point-scoring shoes to Minges as they welcome the Mustangs.

Led by sophomore guard Kendric Davis, a transfer from Texas Christian University (11-3, 2-0 Big 12), the Mustangs average over 78 points of offense per game. Ranking inside the top-50 in the nation in scoring offense, SMU boasts four players who average at least 13.9 points per game.

Davis, who missed the first four games of the season after his transfer waiver was initially denied, paces the program with 16.6 points per contest. While the Mustangs lost three starters after last season, including Jahmal McMurray, Davis has stepped in nicely to fulfill top scoring duties.

As the man with the ball in his hands the most, it is natural to see Davis leading the team with 7.3 assists per game. His season-high is 10 dimes on Nov. 29 as his streak of nine straight games with at least five assists is the longest in SMU program history since 1994.

Nationally, Davis would rank 7th in assists per game, but he has yet to appear in 75% of the Mustangs’ games. Nevertheless, Davis has netted double digit points in nine of his 10 games played this season and ranks second on the roster with 1.3 steals per game.

Aside from Davis, the trio of junior forward Isiaha Mike, junior guard Tyson Jolly and sophomore forward Feron Hunt rank second, third and fourth respectively on the roster in points scored. Mike and Jolly find themselves inside the top-five in the AAC with at least 15 points scored while Davis would slot in at third if he had enough games to qualify.

As a quartet, Davis, Mike, Jolly and Hunt account for 61.1 of the Mustangs’ 78.4 points scored on average per game. For perspective, ECU’s top-four scorers average just over 50 points per game as the Pirates are tied for 206th in the nation in scoring offense through 15 games.

With Davis’ help, the Mustangs rank in the top-15 in assists per game as a team, averaging 17.1 every time on the court. On 389 made field goals this season, SMU players have dished out 240 assists while turning the ball over less than 14 times per game.

Aiding in their effort for lofty assist numbers is a Mustangs squad that knows how to put the ball in the basket. Entering Saturday, SMU ranks 32nd in the nation shooting 47.5% from the field, including over 35% from three-point range. That second percentage is top-100 in the NCAA as the Mustangs’ 78.6% effort from the free throw line is a top-five number in the nation.

Of players with at least 35 free throw attempts on SMU’s roster, Davis leads the way with a 92.5% (49-of-53) effort. Mike is not far behind with his 89.7% (35-of-39) performance, a number that ranks 23rd in the country.

On the defensive side of things, the Mustangs can be described as above average. While they allow opponents to score nearly 68 points per game, ranking them toward the middle of the pack, they hold opposing teams to 40.1% shooting. That number places them 81st in the NCAA while their positive-10.5 scoring margin also ranks as one of the best in the sport.

With a 12-2 record, the Mustangs will step off the bus in Greenville, North Carolina on Saturday sporting the 15th-best win-loss percentage in the country. The Pirates, while still below .500, have shown some fight through two league games in the new year.

Gardner is averaging 26 points per game in AAC play while freshman forward/guard Brandon Suggs also finds himself in double digits through two games (10.5 ppg). Those two players alone make up 55.7% of the Pirates’ scoring average in league play, a sign ECU is leaning far too heavily on only a few of its players.

Even so, a close loss to nationally ranked Wichita State University (13-1, 1-0 AAC) to open the new year paired with a confidence-boosting home win against USF puts the Pirates in a prime position to even up their record at 8-8.

“Students are starting to come back so students mixed with the fans that are already here, Minges will be crazy,” Gardner said after Tuesday’s win according to ECUPirates.com. “We need you guys, need your support.”

Since a 2-7 start threatened to derail their season before it even began, the Pirates are 5-1 and sporting a five-game home winning streak. At home for two more games before hitting the road, ECU will once again be tasked with another tough league opponent.

Against a team that has topped 80 points in five consecutive contests in the form of SMU, the Pirates’ biggest challenge on Saturday might be making enough baskets to keep the game close. As fans have seen this season, ECU has the capability to do that, but it will take limiting mistakes to make it a reality this weekend.

The Pirates and Mustangs tip-off at 2 p.m. on Saturday inside Minges Coliseum.

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