CHARLOTTE – Within the span of 40 minutes at Spectrum Center on Friday, the East Carolina basketball team showed both how good it can be and how far it still has left to go.
The Pirates played a solid first half against Liberty in the opening game of the four-game Shootout Charlotte event, leading much of the way while opening up as much as a 10-point advantage.
But they lost their rhythm early in the second half and faltered on both ends of the court on the way to a 74-64 loss to the Flames.
“When it got a little difficult, our immaturity offensively set in,” ECU coach Joe Dooley said afterward. “When people make a shot, you think you can run down there and score real quick. But you’re not going to do that on the first (look) against these guys.
“We need to do a better job of having our guys understand that and they also need to do a better job of understanding.”
This marked the third time in as many losses for the 8-3 Pirates this season that they weren’t able to sustain a strong early effort after putting an opponent on the ropes.
They were within one at halftime against Oklahoma on November 18 before losing a five-point decision, then let an 11-point advantage against Davidson slip away three days later in the final game of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.
On this occasion, ECU jumped out to a 21-11 lead on a 3-pointer by J.J. Miles with 10:24 left in the half. Then, even after Liberty (7-4) battled back to take a 26-25 lead, the Pirates answered a string of nine straight points by the Flames with a 7-0 run of their own to regain control.
The key to that success was an offensive balance, with eight different players scoring over the opening 20 minutes, strong work on the glass and a defense that hounded Liberty’s shooters – star point guard Darius McGhee in particular – into a 3 of 14 performance beyond the 3-point arc.
But then everything changed in the second half.
“After a good start, I thought our shot selection came into question and that changed the complexion of the game,” Dooley said. “I’m very disappointed in the way we played for about a 10-minute stretch in the second half.”
The Pirates actually got off to a promising start in the second half. After Liberty scored the first five points to go back ahead, Tristen Newton countered with a basket off the dribble, Vance Jackson hit a 3-pointer and Brandon Suggs added a pair of free throws for a 42-37 lead.
It was at that point, the change in shot selection Dooley mentioned began to kick in. While McGee and the Flames began to make baskets, ECU went cold, leading to a 12-0 run from which the Pirates never fully recovered.
McGee made four of his five 3-pointers over the final 20 minutes and finished with 27 points.
ECU, meanwhile, shot just 32% from the floor after the break while committing eight turnovers. And after scoring 10 second-chance points on seven offensive rebounds to start the game, it managed only two points on two offensive boards from that point on.
“You’ve got to learn that you can’t go from plus-2 to minus-6,” Dooley said. “When you’re trying to learn how to win, those are the areas that are very dangerous. When you’re not used to winning, you’re like ‘We’ll just run down here and get it back.’ But it doesn’t work that way against good teams and those guys are a good team.”
While those lessons still clearly need to be learned, there was at least one bright spot for the Pirates.
Vance Jackson, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Arkansas, led ECU with 15 points and 10 rebounds, going 5 of 8 from the four, including four 3-pointers. He also had two assists, two steals and a blocked shot.
“He’s starting to figure out what we need from him,” Dooley said. “I thought he did some good things. I thought he was active, his shot selection was good. He’s really starting to come along to what we thought he’d be.”
Jackson was joined at 15 points by Newton while Miles was the only other Pirate in double figures with 11 points.