Pirates begin C-USA play

Published 10:05 pm Tuesday, January 3, 2012

East Carolina forward Maurice Kemp (2) goes up for a layup during the team’s 91-46 win over UVa.-Wise on Saturday. Tonight, the Pirates will begin Conference USA play on the road against Southern Miss. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — The Pirates’ five-game winning streak is in serious jeopardy tonight as they start out the new year and Conference USA play on the road against a scorching-hot Southern Miss team whose win streak is nearly double that of East Carolina’s.
The Golden Eagles enter their C-USA opener having won nine in a row and hold 13-2 record that includes signature wins over Arizona State, Ole Miss and USF.
“They’re tough and they have unbelievable speed and they can offensive rebound,” East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo said of USM. “They’re fast at every spot and at times they can put a lineup out there that can shoot threes at every position. Their guards are fast and their inside guys present problems because of their speed and quickness.”
East Carolina’s non-conference schedule failed to feature any school’s from a BCS conference and the Pirates will have to go from beating the NAIA’s UVa.-Wise 91-56 its last time out to facing a team that is a perfect 7-0 at home and has the best record in the conference.
Despite the lack of marquee names in their non-conference schedule, Pirates’ coach Jeff Lebo felt that slate did a good job of testing his team.
“We got challenged and we lost some games where we got challenged. It’s just the way that the schedule works,” Lebo said.
Inconsistent shooting led to ECU going 4-4 after the first eight games of the year but the Pirates have answered Lebo’s calls for more scoring and have had at least four players score 10 points or more in four of their last five games.
Helping fuel the team’s five-game win streak has been the emergence of power forward Maurice Kemp and shooting guard Shamarr Bowden. Both worked their way into the starting lineup after the team’s 10-day finals break and have made the most of their opportunities.
The 6-8, 185-pound Kemp has recorded three straight double-doubles and has become the team’s third-leading scorer with 10.4 points per game while his 7.2 rebounds per contest is tops.
The sharpshooting Bowden has been deadly from downtown and is making team-best 44 percent of his three-point attempts.
“I think we’ve shown some signs and improved offensively,” Lebo said.
The spike in offense has been nice, but the team is a bit hamstrung on the other end of the court as sophomore power forward Robert Sampson’s status is still uncertain for tonight’s game due to an ankle injury he sustained in the team’s Dec. 29 win over N.C. Central.
Sampson’s savvy and 6-8, 215-pound frame make him extremely difficult to replace but the Pirates must find a way to make up for his absence.
“For us to be effective in conference play we need some guys to come off the bench that maybe haven’t done it consistently to maybe give us a bit more than what they’ve been giving us,” Lebo said.
As expected, senior center preseason all-conference selection Darrius Morrow and junior point guard Miguel Paul have been giving the Pirates as much as they can. Morrow is second on the team in scoring and rebounds with 13.1 and 6.2 a night, respectively. Paul leads ECU with 15.6 points per game and heads into conference play as the league’s top assist man with 5.7 per contest.
The Golden Eagles feature four players scoring 10 points or more and are guided by Kentucky transfer Darnell Dodson. The 6-7 power forward missed the first 10 games of the year after pleading guilty to larceny charges and has averaged 15 points per game since his return five games ago.
“Obviously Dodson is a factor for them and has been their leading scorer and one of their best rebounders that last five games,” Lebo said.
LaShay Page, a 6-2 junior, is second on the team in scoring with 14.2 points per night and is followed by 6-10 senior Maurice Bolden (11.3 ppg/6.7 rpg), 6-0 senior Angelo Johnson (11.3 ppg) and 5-11 sophomore Neil Watson (10.3).
The Southern Miss defense has been just as effective as its offense thanks to a man-to-man scheme that places a heavy emphasis on shutting down the passing lanes.
“They really pressure and get out and deny. They make every pass difficult. That’s hard to simulate for us because we don’t play the same type of man-to-man as they do.”