UNCW bests ECU in battle of basketball teams heading in opposite directions

UNC Wilmington continued to add onto the best start in school history at a sold out Trask Coliseum with an 81-71 win against neighboring rival East Carolina, which has now dropped three straight after a promising start of its own.

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
UNC Wilmington Head Coach Kevin Keatts yells to his team as they take on Campbell University at Gore Arena in Buies Creek on Wednesday

WILMINGTON — Two college basketball teams heading in opposite directions crossed paths on Tuesday as they begin to make their final preparations for the start of conference play less than two weeks away. And the results were predictable. UNC Wilmington continued to add onto the best start in school history at a sold out Trask Coliseum with an 81-71 win against neighboring rival East Carolina, which has now dropped three straight after a promising start of its own. Although the high-flying Seahawks weren’t at their best, making just nine of 29 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc while sending the opposition to the free throw line 30 times, they were good enough at forcing the taller Pirates into playing their game to come away with their 10th win in 11 games this season. “Every game is not going to be perfect. You just have to grind through those games,” said senior guard Denzel Ingram, who took over in the second half to lead all scorers with 26 points. “We’re not going to get stops on every possession. It’s really just about coming together at the end and getting wins.” One reason UNCW was forced to work a little harder than usual on Tuesday was the absence of star big man Devontae Cacok for all but seven minutes of the game. The team’s leading rebounder, who averages 14 points per game and shoots an incredible 80 percent from the floor, got off to a fast start with two baskets on his only two field goal attempts in the opening minutes. But foul trouble sent him to the bench and forced backups Chuck Ogbodo and Marcus Bryan to carry the load inside. There were even times in which coach Kevin Keatts opted for an even smaller lineup than usual, speeding up the tempo to a track meet pace and forcing his ECU counterpart Jeff Lebo to counter in kind — a move that help force his best big man, Wake Forest transfer Andre Washington, off the court for an extended period of time. C.J. Bryce complemented Ingram’s big game with 25 points of his own while chris Flemmings added 12 points, despite the fact that the two combined to go just 2 of 12 from 3-point range. “It’s a game of styles,” Keatts said. “It’s a game of size vs. quickness and I thought we won that game within the game, because if you look at it, Andre Washington only played 15 minutes of basketball. They’re big, but at the end of the game he had to play five guards because we’re so quick. If we were getting pounded inside we would have had to go a little bit bigger.” Even though the Pirates were taken out of their comfort zone and had to play several unfamiliar lineup combinations, Lebo was able to at least take encouragement from the way his bounced back from a dreadful performance against College of Charleston last Thursday and an icy shooting performance for the first 20 minutes against the Seahawks. ECU (7-5) managed only 35 points in losing its most recent game and got off to a 7 for 29 start (24.1 percent) in the first half. But led by guard B.J. Tyson and a pair of freshmen, it recovered to make 64 percent of its second half shots to keep the game close. Tyson finished with 17 points while rookies Jeremy Sheppard and Elijah Hughes contributed 12 points each. Hughes, playing in only his second game after returning from injury, also had five rebounds in an encouraging 23-minute performance. “I’m excited about those guys,” Lebo said of Sheppard and Hughes. “I thought they did some good things on the road in a tough environment. Jeremy, I thought, was terrific. We flow better when he’s on the floor because he can really dribble, he can pass, he’s got a good IQ and he gets his shots.” As much progress as Sheppard and Hughes have made thus far, they — along with their veteran teammates are going to have to raise their level of play even higher in the coming weeks for ECU to turn things around and post its first winning season since 2012-13. After a home game against Presbyterian on Thursday, the Pirates begin play in the competitive American Athletic Conference. UNCW, meanwhile, will get its toughest test to date in its next game, on Dec. 28 at Clemson, before opening play in the Colonial Athletic Conference. Unlike the Pirates, though, the Seahawks are headed into the most important part of their season riding a wave of positive momentum. “I couldn’t be more proud of my group,” Keatts said of his defending CAA champions. “We’re 11-1. You look back at the Middle Tennessee State game (their only loss) and I told our guys that if you learn from that game and move forward, you’