Pirates close out-of-conference slate with win over Greensboro

Published 6:36 pm Sunday, December 28, 2014

GREENVILLE — A pair of injuries right out of the gate and the learning curve that comes with breaking in new players set ECU hoops back as the 2014-15 season began, but with the out-of-conference slate now finished and competition in a tough American Athletic Conference just three days away, head coach Jeff Lebo has his Pirates (7-6) playing arguably to their full potential at this part of the season.

Sunday at Minges Coliseum, ECU throttled the UNC Greensboro (4-9) Spartans, 71-50, by shooting 57.5 percent from the field and forcing the Spartans to shoot 35 percent. The Pirates set the tone by going 16-for-22 (72.7) from the floor in the first half, all but putting the game away in the first 20 minutes with a 45-26 lead at the break

“In the first half, we were the best we’ve played all year — no doubt about it,” Lebo said. “Offensively, we shared the bowl, we shot the ball and we defended very well … In the second half, I don’t think we played as well but when they cut the lead, we made some key plays. It was nice to be able to coast to a ‘W.’”

ECU snatched the lead 58 seconds into the contest and never let it go. The Pirates’ largest lead was 27 with 14:10 left in the second half, and the closest the Spartans would get from there until the final horn was with 6:21 left when they trailed by 15, 63-48.

Ten different Pirates received at least ten minutes of playing time, a result of the injuries (especially down low) and changes in roles with some of the Pirates’ key contributors being newcomers. With so many substitutions, teams can have difficulty meshing, but the Pirates appear to be gelling fairly effectively under Jeff Lebo. It showed Sunday as they racked up 20 assists compared to UNCG’s eight.

“It’s been hard for me this year because we haven’t had a lot of separation, particularly in our backcourt; we’ve got a lot of depth there,” Lebo noted. “It’s been hard for me to figure out who is going to play well. But we’ve been able to utilize them all and play them double figure minutes, which I think has been really key coming into this time of the year.”

Several guards have seen significant minutes for ECU this year, while a couple others have had time cut. Former-Florida State transfer Terry Whisnant has received consistent playing time at shooting guard and swing for Lebo, however. On Sunday, he lived up to his role, shooting 5-for-8 for 17 points and racked up a career-high six assists compared to zero turnovers.

“Terry was terrific,” Lebo said. “He shot it very well. He had six assists and no turnovers. That’s a heck of a [stat] line.”

Probably the most impactful element of ECU’s positive play of late has been the return of an increasingly healthy Paris Roberts-Campbell, the Pirates’ 6-foot-3 inch senior leader. The game was comfortably in ECU’s hands late, so Roberts-Campbell received most of his 23 minutes of action in the first half. He totaled five rebounds, four assists, four points and a steal in the limited minutes, shut down UNCG’s best scorer in Tevon Saddler (8 points, 4-for-11) and won his matchup when asked to defend in the post against bigger UNCG forwards.

Sunday was a microcosm of what the Charlotte-native has done at ECU for the better part of his four years. His impact on the game simply doesn’t show up in the stat lines.

“You can’t put a price tag on what he does for us out there,” Lebo said after the win. “He guards multiple positions, he’s in the right place at the right time, doesn’t make mistakes defensively and he just makes winning plays. Four assists, five rebounds in just 23 minutes. But when you watch him play defensively, he covers up a lot of mistakes that guys make. He makes us a much better basketball team when he’s on the floor.”

Consecutive wins give the Pirates confidence heading into league-play, but the American slate promises to be a tough one. The Pirates are projected near the bottom of the conference and probably lack the size and depth down low to expect to shatter those expectations. With no clear time-table on forward Marshall Guilmette’s return from a variety of injuries, Lebo says he’ll have to move forward in preparation without the 6-foot-10 inch sophomore.

“We were put behind a lot with Marshall’s [situation],” said Lebo. “We’re still trying to figure out, ‘Is he going to be back?,’ ‘Is he not going to be back?,’ and ‘When he comes back, can he be effective?’ It would probably be smart on my part to go with the idea that he’s not going to be back. So we’ve got some guys that we weren’t planning on playing as many minutes that are playing a lot now, especially inside.”

First-year Pirate forwards Kanu Aja and Michel Nzege will need to mature quickly to give ECU a shot at competitiveness, while junior Michael Zangari will have to continue his progress. The trio combined for 22 points and 10 rebounds against UNCG.

ECU will have its chance to win its third straight at home on Wednesday at noon, as the Pirates open up conference play against the Tulane Green Wave (9-3) at noon.