GREENVILLE — Like everyone else associated with the East Carolina basketball team, B.J. Tyson was blindsided Wednesday by the unexpected resignation of coach Jeff Lebo.
But once he got over the initial shock of the news, he knew exactly what he had to do.
Go out and win one for his now-former coach.
Tyson did just that on Thursday by scoring a career-high 30 points to lead the Pirates to an emotional 93-88 overtime victory against in-state rival UNC Wilmington at Minges Coliseum.
The senior guard made the free throw that tied the game late in regulation, then scored nine of the ECU’s 12 points in the extra period to provide his team with a badly needed win while paying tribute to Lebo in the only way he knew how.
“This game right here was dedicated to him,” Tyson said of Lebo, who cited burnout for his decision to step down just six games into the new season. “I’m sure the rest of the guys felt the same way. I wanted to go out there and give it my all.
“I told one of the players that I’m going to be out there playing with anger and that’s what I did. I think I left it out there on the court.”
As much emotion as the Pirates expended during the actual game, they still had enough left afterward to go up into the stands to dance and celebrate with their classmates in the student section.
It was a welcome relief from a tumultuous season that became even more complicated in the 24 hours leading up to Thursday’s hard-earned victory.
ECU had already been through the indefinite suspension of key players Jeremy Sheppard and Raquan Wilkins, the denial of an NCAA waiver for transfer Seth LeDay and embarrassing losses to Radford, Central Connecticut State and NC A&T when it was hit with Lebo’s departure Wednesday afternoon.
The players learned of their coach’s decision shortly before it was announced publicly at a press conference.
While their reactions ran the gamut from surprise to disappointment to confusion, the sudden upheaval eventually brought the team closer together and produced a resolve that showed on the court against UNCW,
“In my head, I was like now we’ve got something to prove,” junior guard Isaac Fleming, who scored 21 points in the victory, said of the second midseason coaching change of his college career. He went through a similar situation during his freshman season at Hawaii.
“A lot of people are probably thinking ‘since he’s gone that team is just going downhill,’” Fleming said. “No, no, no, no, no. We’re going to keep fighting to the end.”
They did on Wednesday, first overcoming a near-disastrous start in which they fell behind 15-5, then refusing to let their inspired effort be wasted on another frustrating defeat after the Seahawks put on a late 9-0 run that turned a six-point ECU lead into a 72-69 deficit.
It was a performance that won the admiration of interim coach Michael Perry.
“I was telling our athletic director (Jeff Compher) that there’s a lot more character in that locker room than a lot of people realize,” Perry said. “They’re really resilient. They bend, but they don’t break. But now they have to continue to believe in themselves.
“This certainly goes a long way toward in them being able to solidify that attitude. To be able to bounce back from being down showed a lot of character, and some grit and toughness that we really needed.”
As proud as Perry is of his players and as much as he wanted them to enjoy their accomplishment, he was quick to warn them not to get too caught up in the emotion of the moment.
The Pirates (3-4) play again on Saturday at home against Delaware State.
Once the emotion of the coaching change and the ensuing victory begin to wear off, ECU will still have the same issues to deal with and overcome as it did before Lebo’s resignation.
“I told the kids to be cognizant of what the big picture is here,” Perry said. “We play in less than 48 hours. You love this feeling that we have right now and you want it again? Then you need to dial in, because winning starts right now.”
Perry knows what he’s talking about, having stepped in for the final 14 games last season after Lebo took a leave of absence to undergo hip surgery. The Pirates went 6-8 in those games on their way to a 15-18 record.
The veteran coach also went through a similar situation to the one he’s facing now when he took over at Georgia State when Lefty Driesell called it quits in January 2003.
“Like Coach Lebo, he called me on New Year’s Day and said ‘I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore. You got it,’” Perry said of Driesell. “I’ve been in this situation before. It isn’t my first rodeo. That experience certainly does come in handy in terms of the transition from one voice to the other for the kids, because that’s the biggest transition for them.”
Perry took over a team that was 4-6 and led it to a 10-9 record at Georgia State in 2003, a performance that helped him get the job on a permanent basis. Although he deflected a question about whether the rest of this season might be a similar audition, his players were quick to endorse him as a candidate to become the Pirates’ full-time coach.
“I feel like he can be the head coach in the future,” Tyson said, an opinion that was seconded by Fleming with a decisive “(Heck) yeah.”
“We go through a lot,” Tyson said. “With Lebo stepping down you’ve got Perry stepping up and taking that challenge six games in. That shows a lot of pride and gives us energy to want to play for him.”
Perry said he isn’t planning to make any major tactical changes — which makes sense, as UNCW’s C.B. McGrath pointed out, noting that ECU’s “personnel is the exact same. He wasn’t going to recruit new players (overnight).”
That doesn’t mean the new Pirates coach won’t try to put his own stamp on the team now that he’s the man in charge.
“One thing we could do better is to try to play harder,” Perry said. “If we could do that it would really fix a lot of things. It covers a lot of mistakes and those deficiencies you have just by playing harder.
“So we wanted to do that and we wanted to play faster. We want to get out in transition. We don’t want to run a lot of plays and set the action up. We want to play with a lot more flow and a lot of speed … which is good basketball to watch, but it’s good basketball to play.”