Papa presents big problems for Pirates|ECU must contain Mustangs’ center

Published 10:31 pm Wednesday, February 2, 2011

By By BRIAN HAINES,, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — The Pirates battled back from a 13-point second half deficit to pull out a 74-70 win against Houston on Saturday in game in which they didn’t hold a lead until the final 1:46 mark.
East Carolina (12-9, 4-3) would love to win in a more conventional fashion tonight when it travels to SMU (13-8, 4-3), but that will be a tall order as the Pirates must try and contain the Mustangs 6-9 center Papa Dia.
The Pirates have been anything but traditional this season as they fell to Southern Miss two games ago despite shooting over 50 percent from the floor. On Saturday, ECU made only four of its 24 three-point attempts (16 percent and shot brisk 37 percent from the field, but still managed to cage the Cougars.
“We have had some games where we have lost them at the buzzer and we have had some that we finished off where we looked like we were going to lose the game, and all of a sudden some how found a way to win the game,” East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo said.
“I think we have been resilient. We haven’t given up. We have had some things fall in our favor when you win like that.”
Lebo said his Pirates, who are in a three-way tie for third place in the Conference USA standings with SMU and Tulsa, are finding themselves in uncharted territory.
“I think the big thing with our group is that we are playing meaningful basketball games in February,” Lebo said. “And I don’t know if they have had meaningful basketball games in February in the past.”
For the games to keep being meaningful the Pirates must continue to win, and tonight they will face a big obstacle in Dia. The 6-9 forward is fifth in the conference in scoring and rebounding averaging 18 points and 8.6 boards a night. The senior center is shooting 58 percent on the season and is also blocking 2.2 shots per game.
“He’s long and he’s got all kinds of different moves in (the paint),” Lebo said. “He can slither by you, he can jump hook on you, he can turn and face you a little bit and if you foul him he is almost 81 percent from the free throw line.”
Dia’s play in the paint has opened up the floor for coach Matt Doherty’s Mustangs to shoot the three. So far this season SMU is tops in the conference in 3-point percentage as it makes an astounding 40 percent of its shots.
“With them you have to worry about the three-point line,” Lebo said. “They have a unique group because they have a post presence and the ability to put four shooters on the court together with a post guy. They stretch you out to three point line which gives them room in the post.”
Aside from Dia, SMU’s main scoring threat has been forward Robert Nyakundi who is tallying a Conference USA-eighth best 16.4 points per night.
Nyakundi scored 29 points in the team’s 75-68 win over Rice, its third straight win, and his play along with the other shooters will make it tough for ECU to double Dia in the paint.
“You have to be careful with him because of the team’s ability to shoot, so if you double down on him you have to zone up with the other guys and you are going to leave a good shooter (open),” Lebo said. “We’ll mix what we want to do against him to try not to give him one consistent look. With their ability to shoot the ball you have to pick you poison.”
Expect ECU forward/center Darrius Morrow to cover Dia a majority of the time. Morrow had trouble with Houston’s athletic forward Maurice McNeill on Saturday as McNeill scored 18 points and pulled down 13 boards and was a force until he drew his fourth foul late in the second half.
Morrow answered with 18 points of his own, and if Morrow can force Dia to work on defense it will greatly improve the Pirates odds of slowing down the Mustangs tonight.