Stepping up: My take: Just like that

Published 4:41 pm Thursday, January 28, 2016

What a difference a week makes.

Just six days ago, the East Carolina men’s basketball team did not have a conference win and things looked bleak after consecutive blowout losses against Temple, Southern Methodist, Central Florida and Tulsa.

However, what followed has been season altering for Jeff Lebo and company. Senior guard Prince Williams stepped up and became a vital piece of the offense, and it couldn’t have come at a better time with Caleb White seeing limited or no action in the past two games due to injury.

The undersized ECU team has been making gritty plays and is starting to pull out games late, rather than collapse with mistake after mistake, as was the case earlier in American Athletic Conference play.

Despite giving up a lead as large as 14 in the second half against Memphis Sunday, the Pirates hung with a top-flight AAC team. Prince Williams had ice in his veins as he sank four straight free throws inside of two minutes left to carry ECU to a one-point victory.

Williams dropped a double-double in the game with 20 points and 10 assists and brought his strong stretch of play back home with him and displayed it again Wednesday night. The senior scored seven straight points at the end of the second half before trying to score again for the game winner against Temple. He missed a contested layup, but Kentrell Barkley did not.

The freshman phenom pulled the ball off the fingertips of a Temple forward, turned, hit the game-winning basket with 1.8 seconds left and converted an and-one free throw to put the icing on the cake.

The turnaround has been defined in those gritty plays. Inside of 30 seconds left in the first half against Temple, Michel Nzege chased down a runaway rebound that was headed out of bounds. With a heads-up play, Nzege scooped up the ball and slung it into the open floor where only B.J. Tyson could pick it up and break a 26-26 tie to spring ECU into the lead and boost momentum headed into the locker room.

Against Memphis, Tyson had isolation against a Tiger defender with seconds left in the half, but a smart kick out to Prince Williams in the corner and made 3-pointer gave ECU a nine-point lead at the half.

These kinds of sequences simply did not go ECU’s way a few weeks ago. Tulsa erased a seven-point ECU lead in the final five minutes of the first half to lead by five at intermission.

Just as the Pirates picked up momentum against SMU, Markus Kennedy stretched a five-point lead to eight with his second made 3-pointer of the season.

And the first time ECU met Temple this year, the Owls had Devin Coleman to thank for flipping the momentum with a 3-pointer as time expired in the first half.

In those games, Temple, SMU and Tulsa went on to dominate the Pirates in the second half, but it seems that the script has flipped.

The Pirates are making the most of possessions late in games and putting a shock into teams near the top of the conference. Perhaps the team got tired of losing, or maybe players are just hitting their stride at the right time. It’s possible the youth of this team, and even veteran players, are learning how to close out games.

It’s likely a combination of those factors and many others. But the truth is, ECU men’s basketball just finished its best week to date in its short history in the American Athletic Conference.