Undefeated Tulsa squeaks by ECU

Published 4:01 pm Saturday, January 24, 2015

GREENVILLE — The reigning Conference USA champion and current American conference undefeated American Tulsa Golden Hurricane kept its streak alive Saturday in Minges Coliseum despite getting all it could handle from a less talented but gritty East Carolina Pirates team.

Head coach Frank Haith’s Tulsa (14-5, 7-0 AAC) team squeaked by ECU (8-11, 1-5 AAC), 66-64, on the back of 29 free throw attempts compared to just 12 for the Pirates.

Some of the calls against the Pirates were shaky, but most were legitimate and caused by Tulsa’s ability to probe through ECU’s zone.

“[Tulsa] is an experienced group that’s used to winning and good teams find different ways to win. For them, it was the foul line that was the difference in the game,” said ECU head coach Jeff Lebo after the game.

Tulsa shot 20-for-29 from the stripe, not great, but enough to get the job done considering the Golden Hurricane had eight more converted free throws than ECU (6-for-12) had attempts.

Tulsa guards James Woodard (17 points), Shaquille Harrison (13 points) and Rashad Smith (nine points) did most of the damage to ECU by penetrating and drawing whistles. The three-point shot was mostly a non-factor as Tulsa shot just 6-for-21 in that category.

After taking 35-29 lead into the locker room at halftime, the Pirates came out flat as Tulsa went on a 22-9 run that culminated at the 10:40 mark of the second half and gave the Golden Hurricane a 51-44 advantage.

ECU had its chances down the stretch however.

Behind the shooting from guard Terry Whisnant (22 points, 6-for-9 from three) and the motor of big man Michel Nzege, who played his best game of the year (13 points, 11 rebounds, five assists), the Pirates clawed back to tie it up, 57-57 at the 5:02 mark.

Tulsa held serve as the game wound down. The Golden Hurricane never surrendered the lead despite the Pirates knotting the game up again, 61-6,1 at the 2:09 mark.

With 28 seconds left, ECU was trailing by one possession, 64-61, with the ball — very manageable on the surface. Tulsa had two fouls to give before a one-and-one however, making it nearly impossible for the Pirates to get a look for shooters Terry Whisnant, Caleb White or Paris Roberts-Campbell.

Haith and the Golden Hurricane executed the advantageous defensive possession to perfection, fouling twice and forcing the Pirates to run the clock down to six seconds before Whisnant missed the front end of his one-and-one.

Still trailing by three, ECU fouled Harrison with five seconds, hoping for two misses; the Pirates got what they wanted as Harrison bricked both, but Tulsa’s D’Andre Wright came down with the board after the second miss that iced the game.

The Pirates, who have proven to be a formidable opponent at Minges, fought hard, but there were too many ECU players that had a sub-par offensive game to expect to beat a probable NCAA tournament team in Tulsa.

Nzege, Whisnant and guard Antonio Robinson combined for 45 of the team’s 64 points, while forwards Caleb White, Marshall Guilmette, Michael Zangari and guards B.J. Tyson and Lance Tejada all scored well under their averages.

Regardless, elite teams around the American are being tested on the road, no matter where they play, and ECU is no different. There was no part of Frank Haith that appeared disappointed in his team’s performance after the game.

“It was a great win for us,” said Haith. “I give East Carolina a lot of credit; they played extremely hard and I’m proud of how tough we were down the stretch. Teams are gonna get better in this league,” he continued. “There’s a lot of young teams in this league. As the year progresses on, teams get better because they mature. I think you’re seeing that from top to bottom in this league; teams are getting better.”

ECU returns to action Wednesday as the Pirates take on Memphis (11-7, 4-3) at 9 p.m. on the road. Following that game, a home matchup against Cincinnati and a road trip to UConn complete a very difficult stretch on the ECU’s schedule.