Getting defensive

Published 6:54 pm Wednesday, December 21, 2011

East Carolina’s Darrius Morrow (1) and Robert Sampson (12) have helped the Pirates hold teams to 59.5 points per game, which is the second-best mark in Conference USA. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — A happy Grinch? That’s the role the Pirates are playing this holiday season as they have stolen everything in sight and could not more pleased about it.
After 10 games the East Carolina basketball team is 6-4 largely because coach Jeff Lebo can count on his defense to consistently make plays when the offense decides to head to the North Pole for a little while.
The Pirates enter tonight’s home matchup with Gardner-Webb (6-6, Big South) boasting Conference USA’s second-most stingiest defense giving up 59.5 points per contest largely because they lead the league in steals with 10.7 thefts a night.
“It’s all about chemistry, when one person moves we all move,” said point guard Miguel Paul, whose 2.1 steals per game is tops in C-USA. “We work on it every day in practice and we take pride in our defense.”
What’s most encouraging for East Carolina is that it’s racking up a large amount steals despite that fact that it’s not a heavy pressing team. After Paul’s team-high 23 steals, ECU features five other players who have reached the double-digit mark in Corvonnn Gaines (14), Maurice Kemp (12), Erin Straughn (12), Robert Sampson (10) and Paris Roberts-Campbell (10).
The Pirates are doing a good job defending the perimeter as opposing team’s are shooting a mere 25 percent against them from three-point range which is the best in Conference USA.
Active guard play contributes greatly to that stat, but so does the play of ECU bigs such as Darrius Morrow, Sampson and Kemp, whose denial of post players can force teams into settling for bad shots.
When it comes to holding down the middle ground, Lebo said nobody is doing it better than Sampson.
“Sampson is our best post defender,” Lebo said. “Kemp has been pretty good too and Morrow has been solid.”
Kemp said the team’s focus begins with stopping opposing scorers.
“I think it all starts on the defensive end,” said Kemp, who has started the last two games at power forward for the injured Sampson (ankle). “We’re playing great team defense and I think that’s where it all starts. And, we’ve have been hitting shots lately and that always helps.”
It does indeed, as the Pirates emerged from their 10-day break having found their shooting touch which has allowed them to shoot down UNC-Greensboro and Coastal Carolina to take a two-game winning streak into tonight’s contest against the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
Before the hiatus, East Carolina had dropped three straight as the team hit an average of 33.5 percent of its shots during that stretch. In their last two games, the Pirates have made 44 percent of their shots and have gotten production from a wide range of players.
All season long Lebo has been searching for more scoring beyond Paul’s team-leading 16.1 points per game and center Darrius Morrow’s 12.5. On Monday, his team answered the call as four Pirates scored 10 points or more to down Coastal Carolina 76-51 in what Lebo said might be the best game ECU has played all year.
Shooting guard Shamarr Bowden led the charge with 17 points, while Paul scored 15 and Kemp and Morrow each tallied 12.
“When we can score from multiple spots we are much harder to defend,” Lebo said. “It opens up things for a lot of different people.”
East Carolina will need that balanced effort to continue tonight as it takes on a Gardner-Webb team that fell three points shy of beating Butler this season and lost to Wake Forest by a slim 67-59 margin its last time out.
The Bulldogs are led in scoring by guard Jason Dawson (11.8 ppg) and Max Landis (11.7 ppg), along with forwards Kevin Hartley (7.7 ppg) and Mike Byron (7.5 ppg).
Gardner-Webb runs a challenging offense that relies heavily on the use of picks and will present a sturdy test for the Pirates’ defense.
“They use a lot of ball screens on offense. There’s a lot of reading in their offense and they have four-man that can shoot from the perimeter which is always difficult to defend because it gets you spaced out,” Lebo said. “Ball screen defense is going to be vital in this game.”