LEARNING EXPERIENCE: Pirates again fail to close out
Published 12:05 am Sunday, January 3, 2016
GREENVILLE — Just like their female counterparts earlier in the day, the East Carolina Pirates (8-6, 0-1 American Athletic Conference) dropped a heartbreaker on Saturday evening. They played a strong second half — leading by as much as 10 points — but couldn’t close out down the stretch in the 71-68 loss.
ECU had yet to drop a contest in Minges Coliseum. While losing at home was a new experience, not finishing a winnable game wasn’t a new experience. The Pirates dropped a close game to a ranked California squad early in the campaign, as well as two-possession road games at College of Charleston and James Madison.
The experience isn’t entirely negative. It’s an early setback in in ECU’s conference slate, but it provides a teaching point for head coach Jeff Lebo. He recognized the team’s shortcomings in the final minutes and knows what needs to be worked on in practice.
“Offensively, we missed some easy ones at crucial times,” Lebo said. “We missed a bunch of foul shots, offensive rebounds around the rim, we couldn’t finish with contact. We had multiple attempts there we didn’t make that you got to make. We had a couple of big 3’s when we had a run that could have put it to 11 or 12 that we missed.
“We’ve got to be better at it. We’ve got to be tougher. We’ve got to have leadership. We’ve got to have guys that make plays in the last three minutes of a game. We struggle in that area mightily. On the road, we’ve had multiple opportunities in the last three minutes in close games and haven’t finished out.”
Free throws were the main difference maker. The Pirates were just 15-of-23 from the charity stripe. They usually hang their hats on keeping opponents off the free-throw line, too, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday. UCF earned 21 points on 26 free-throw attempts. A few more makes or one less foul could have changed the outcome for the Pirates.
ECU tailed 28-25 going into the second half, but jumped out on a 12-2 run to build a 10-point lead. The Pirates would maintain a decent lead, but couldn’t quite pull away. B.J. Tyson made a layup, which A.J. Davis answered with a jumper to cut the home lead to 56-49 with 5:25 to play.
The tides turned shortly after when Prince Williams’ dunk attempt didn’t clear the rim. They fouled Davis on the other hand and he converted on his free throws, cutting UCF’s deficit to five. UCF was able to keep chipping away until tied the game at 58 apiece with 2:13 to go.
“We had momentum in the second half,” Lebo said. “We miss a dunk — a wide open dunk — and foul on the other end. We should be up by nine. Now, instead of nine, it’s five and they’re right there in that area where they can sting you. That’s what happened in the game and it’s frustrating.”
A series of poor offensive possessions by ECU allowed UCF to build a small lead. The Knights hadn’t been successful from long range. They made just 4-of-18 perimeter attempts, but were able to hit a pair down the stretch. Davis sank a 3 that gave his side a 66-61 advantage with 1:18 to play.
ECU travels to Tulsa on Tuesday evening. Both teams will hope to bounce back. The Golden Hurricane fell 76-57 to Cincinnati on Saturday.