ECU coasts past UCF

Published 11:35 am Sunday, February 8, 2015

East Carolina continued its success with zone defense Saturday night in Minges Coliseum and sailed to a 67-49 win over Central Florida.

Many predicted about three American Athletic Conference wins for the Pirates (10-13, 3-7 AAC) in their inaugural season in the conference, but with a month still left to play, ECU is in a position to exceed expectations.

Defensive heroics led to ECU’s first two conference wins and the narrative stayed true against UCF (9-13, 2-9 AAC).

The Pirates forced 17 turnovers Saturday resulting in 19 points; UCF scored just seven points off of 10 ECU turnovers.

Senior guard Antonio Robinson, who had an up-and-down 2013-14 season, has found his “happy place” this year operating at the top of the Pirates’ zone. The Winston-Salem native put together another complete stat line Saturday to the tune of four points, four assists, four steals and six rebounds. ECU head coach Jeff Lebo believes stats don’t accurately describe Robinson’s contributions to this year’s team.

“He’s been terrific,” said Lebo. “How many times was he on the floor tonight? How many times did he get deflections? Not only was he on the floor, but he came up with ball, passed the ball off the floor and gave us fast break opportunities. Those kind of things are winning plays. A lot of what he does doesn’t show up [on the stat sheet]. In the zone, what a worker. He’s one of the best guys I’ve seen run it at the top of the zone because of his activity and his length.”

ECU had an outstanding night offensively as well, outscoring the Knights, 44-30 in the paint and shooting 45.9 percent from the field.

The Pirates grabbed their first lead, 21-18, with 5:41 left in the first half and they never relinquished it. Their largest lead of 21 came in the closing seconds.

Forward Michael Zangari was a big part of ECU’s inside game, putting together his best game of the season with 10 points and four boards before his knee buckled at the 5:23 mark of the second half.

“We’ll know more a little bit later [on his injury],” said Lebo. “It’s maybe a twist but hopefully he’ll be okay.”

Sophomore small forward Caleb White was more than okay Saturday night, dropping 21 points to lead all scorers on 9-of-13 shooting.

“I was more aggressive today,” said White. “Coach told me to be aggressive and look for my shot more today so I did.”

That aggressiveness translated to other areas of his game; the Buckingham, Va. local grabbed nine rebounds – a career high.

“He can do so much more than he’s shown,” said Lebo. “He’s kind of shown it the last couple games rebounding the ball. He’s got to be able to find ways to grow his game. He took the ball to the basket [tonight]. You can’t be known as just a spot-up shooter. He rebounded and defended well in the zone; he made a contribution in all areas.”

No one has questioned ECU’s potential or athleticism, but the young Pirates have put it together quickly than expected and are learning how to close games at the right time of the season.

“We’re starting to play as a team now,” said freshman B.J. Tyson (10 points, four rebounds and two steals). “At the beginning [of the season], we had to find a way to put it together but at home now it seems like we have good chemistry.”

The Pirates will look to continue their momentum at home Tuesday against Memphis (14-9, 6-4). The Tigers won the first meeting in Memphis, 70-58.