GREENVILLE — For awhile Wednesday, it looked as if the pregame layup line — with a few 3-pointers thrown in for good measure — had carried over into the start of the American Athletic Conference basketball game between East Carolina and Temple.
The visiting Owls scored and scored easily as the Pirates stood around as helplessly as the 4,551 in the stands at Minges Coliseum.
Not even a pair of early timeouts by coach Joe Dooley could stop the onslaught. By the time Temple was through, it had scored 21 straight points.
Although ECU eventually regrouped and battled back into contention, getting as close as a single point midway through the second half, it was never able to fully recover from its disastrous start in an 85-74 loss that left its coach searching for answers.
“We’re not good enough talent-wise to just line up and play,” Dooley said. “We’ve got to be turned up to the full throttle to be able to compete. If we’re not we’re going to get beat. Even if we are turned up full throttle we might get beat. But if you don’t give yourself the best chance to be turned up, we are not going to win.
“Effort should be a constant. It shouldn’t be something you’re congratulated for and praised for. You should always try hard. We’ve got to figure that out and keep getting better.”
If ever there was a time in which the Pirates figured to be primed and ready, this was it.
There was plenty of anticipation for Wednesday’s matchup with ECU’s students back in town and a big crowd anticipated after three encouraging performance to start the conference schedule. Instead, it was the Owls (14-3, 4-1) that came out flying after Pirates’ freshman star Jayden Gardner opened the scoring with a basket 10 seconds into the game.
Temple’s Quinton Rose answered right back with a layup of his own, igniting an offensive barrage highlighted by three 3-pointers from a hot-shooting Shizz Alston.
On the other end of the court, the Pirates went 16 straight possessions without a field goal — a stretch that included eight missed shots and three turnovers. It took a technical foul on the Owls’ Nate Pierre-Louis for taunting, resulting in two Shawn Williams’ free throws, for ECU (8-9, 1-4 AAC) to finally end Temple’s epic run.
“We didn’t come out to play,” said Pirates’ sophomore K.J. Davis. “We didn’t come out to play at all today.”
This isn’t the first time that’s happened over the past two weeks.
The Pirates gave up the game’s first nine points to Cincinnati on Jan. 5 before rallying back for an uplifting AAC win. Two games later, they fell behind 26-10 over the opening 10 minutes at Central Florida before settling down and outscoring the Knights by five the rest of the way.
It’s a sudden penchant for slow starts that has Dooley, using his own word,“befuddled.”
“A lot of it is being prepared and ready to play, which the guys for the most part have done a good job,” the first-year coach said. “We have to reevaluate what we’re doing.”
Dooley’s players did their share of reevaluating at halftime after narrowing what had been a 20-point deficit down to 37-23 at the break.
Gardner, the 6-foot-6 forward who leads the AAC in scoring and is second in rebounding, said that he and his teammates “came together as a unit and made a decision: Do we want to play or just get rolled up?
“We decided to fight,” he said.
The battle began with a Davis 3-pointer that sparked an 8-0 run to start the half. ECU continued to chip away at the Temple lead, getting as close as 42-41 when Williams scored on his own rebound with 14:33 remaining.
But that’s as close as the Pirates got.
Alston hit a three-pointer from the right corner, followed by a fastbreak dunk by Pierre-Louis and a trey by Rose to shift momentum back in the Owls’ favor and finally break ECU’s spirit. Alston finished the game with seven 3-pointers on his way to 23 points.
Gardner continued his strong play with 27 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots while going 10 of 12 from the free throw line. Davis added 15 points while Seth LeDay had 12 points and 10 rebounds.
But while Temple went 11 of 22 against a defense that entered the game ranked second in the AAC in 3-point field goal percentage, the Pirates made only six of their 20 attempts from beyond the arc — including a 1 of 9 effort from the usually accurate Williams.
“There were too many breakdowns on things we have not done in a long time,” Dooley said. “I’m disappointed for the way we played in front of our crowd. We had a great crowd. We can’t do that against a good team.”