ECU, freshman Sheppard coming on strong after beating NC Central

Jeremy Sheppards career at ECU got off to a rocky start, thanks to a suspension that sidelined him for his teams first three games. But it was only a matter of time before the freshman combo guard found his rhythm

ECU athletic communications photo by Rob Goldberg Jr.—ECU athletic communications photo by Rob Goldberg Jr.
Freshman guard Jeremy Sheppard has begun to find a rhythm for the Pirates after being suspended for the first three games this season

GREENVILLE — Jeremy Sheppard’s basketball career at East Carolina got off to a rocky start, thanks to a suspension that sidelined him for his team’s first three games. But it was only a matter of time before the freshman combo guard found his rhythm. Saturday, the three-star prospect who originally signed with Central Florida, gave the first glimpse of the promise he brings to the Pirates by playing his best game to date in a 69-56 win against NC Central at Minges Coliseum. Sheppard provided ECU with a perimeter element it has sorely lacked while posting career-high totals of 13 points and eight assists. Then, in a display of his growing confidence, hinted that his performance was only just the beginning by saying he’s “coming and coming strong, too. “My first couple of games were a little shaky,” said Sheppard, who made three of his five 3-point attempts while adding five rebounds and two steals while committing only two turnovers in 28 minutes. “I was still trying to get into the flow and the fast pace at the next level and just listening to my coach and my teammates.” Sheppard came into Saturday’s game averaging 5.2 points while making only four of his 13 shots from beyond the arc with 11 assists and five turnovers. But he got off to a strong start against the Eagles my making his first three field goal attempts, both 3-pointers late in the first half, to get both himself and his team going. His long-distance shooting helped the Pirates open up a double-digit lead against a tough opponent still riding high from last week’s road upset of Missouri. According to Sheppard, it was only a matter of time before he had this kind of breakout game. He said it might have come sooner than the season’s ninth game had he not been forced to sit out the first three for a violation of an unspecified team rule. “It hurt me. It really did hurt me,” he said of the suspension. “I was good in practices, but because I hadn’t played in a game it was rough for me.”In the meantime, Sheppard’s teammates were doing just fine on their own. Led by veteran returners Caleb White, Kentrell Barkley and B.J. Tyson, along transfer big man Andre Washington from Wake Forest, ECU is off to a promising start at 7-2. The addition of another top player, especially one as versatile as Sheppard, only enhances the Pirates’ chances in what could very well be a make-or-break season for seventh year coach Jeff Lebo. “Kentrell and B.J., they’re more get to the free throw line and make things happen in the paint, so they’re good at collapsing people. Me and Shep, you have to play us honest on the perimeter,” said White, who led the way against NCCU with 20 points on 4 of 6 shooting from beyond the arc. “So you have to choose, do you pack it in or do you stay close to the shooters to be able to close out.” It’s choice that makes the Pirates “a lot more dangerous,” in White’s estimation. “And you haven’t seen the best of (Sheppard) yet.” Sheppard’s apparent emergence couldn’t have come at a better time for ECU. On Tuesday, the Pirates travel to Charlottesville to play sixth-ranked Virginia for their most difficult test of the young season. “We’re getting better,” Lebo said. “We’re working hard. This is a difficult stretch where we’ve played a lot of games in a short period of time, so we haven’t had a lot of practice. We’ll have a little more time over finals after this Virginia game to take a little bit of a deep breath. “We haven’t really been in a tough environment yet, so it will be interesting to see how we communicate, how we’re able to play through some physicality on the road when you’re not going to get a lot of things go your way.”