GREENVILLE — East Carolina didn’t just win a basketball game Saturday. It also sent out a message.
By holding off American Athletic Conference heavyweight Cincinnati 73-71 at Minges Coliseum, coach Joe Dooley’s young team put the rest of the league — and the 4,238 fans in attendance — on notice that there’s a different breed of Pirates patrolling the hardwoods in Greenville.
“It’s a new era. It’s the Dooley era,” star freshman Jayden Gardner said after recording the sixth double-double of his young career.. “We practiced so hard, we worked so hard for this. So why not reward ourselves with wins?”
Wins have been hard to come by for ECU over the past five seasons since it last finished above .500. But things promised to change with the return of Dooley, who compiled a 57-52 mark in his first tenure with the Pirates from 1995-96.
After a pedestrian start through the nonconference schedule and a loss at SMU in Wednesday’s conference opener, that promise turned into results against the Bearcats with the first signature win of Dooley’s second act with the Pirates.
It’s a win that didn’t come easy, though.
ECU (8-6, 1-1 AAC) had to recover from a 9-0 deficit to start the game, a scoreless first half by Gardner and late foul trouble on its only two legitimate inside threats against a much taller opponent.
And yet, thanks to a 51-percent shooting performance that included nine 3-pointers and some grit on a wild final possession, the Pirates were able to win for only the second time in 14 career meetings with the defending AAC champions.
“The team that deserved to win won today,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “Their team had humility and we played with a lot of arrogance. We were too good to scrap and fight.”
ECU, on the other hand, showed plenty of those qualities — along with a sound game plan that effectively negated the Bearcats’ decided height advantage by spreading the court and doing most of its damage from the perimeter.
Most importantly the Pirates refused to settle for just playing well against a quality opponent, as previous ECU teams had done so often.
“The big thing was the guys believed they could win,” Dooley said. “When things weren’t going necessarily right, we didn’t cave in. There was a couple times we were on the ropes and guys sort of dug their heels in. I’m proud of them.”
One of those times happened right out of the gate, when after surrendering the game’s first nine points and seeming lost on both ends of the court, K.J. Davis came off the bench to deliver some badly needed stability.
The sophomore guard scored eight of his team’s first 10 points to begin a surge that led to the Pirates taking a 36-27 lead into halftime.
“I saw we were getting down and I just wanted to provide a spark coming off the bench both offensively and defensively,” said Davis, who went 6 of 10 from the floor and 3 of 5 from beyond the arc on his way to a career-high 17 points. “I knew we needed the energy.”
The Pirates needed another jolt of energy early in the second half, after Cincinnati started the period with a 12-2 run that put it back into the lead.
This time is was Davis’ backcourt mate Shawn Williams that came to the rescue by hitting three big 3-pointers to help shift the momentum back in ECU’s favor. Williams, last season’s AAC Rookie of the Year, finished with 16 points.
The favorite for this year’s freshman award, Gardner, also came up big when his team needed it most. He bounced back from his scoreless first half to score 13 points over the final 20 minutes, seven of which came from the free throw line, while leading both teams with 12 rebounds.
Gardner, however, wasn’t on the court for the decisive final possession after fouling out moments earlier. Neither was fellow big Seth LeDay, who was also on the bench with five fouls.
That left it up to deep reserve Justice Obasohan to make the game-saving play by blocking a shot by Cincinnati’s Jarron Cumberland as time expired after a five-second violation gave the Bearcats (12-3, 1-1) one final chance to extend the game or win.
The victory was celebrated by a wild celebration on the court that carried over into the ECU locker room, where Dooley was doused with water by his happy players.
“If I didn’t think we could win, I wouldn’t be here,” Dooley said. “We have some things we’ve got to work on, but we also have an opportunity to play in a high level league and we’ve got a guy (Gardner) to build around.”