Even without court storming, upset of Houston has ECU buzzing

The Pirates' 82-73 win against the AAC rival Cougars at Minges Coliseum on Wednesday was their first against a team ranked in the top five of the national polls

ECU's Jayden Gardner starts to celebrate during the closing minutes of Wednesday's upset of No. 5 Houston at Minges Coliseum (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

East Carolina’s 82-73 upset of No. 5 Houston on Wednesday sent shockwaves through the college basketball world.

Longtime Pirates supporter and Greenville broadcaster Henry Hinton can only imagine the impact the school’s first-ever win against a top-five opponent might have had closer to home if circumstances were normal and fans had been allowed to attend the game at Minges Coliseum.

“I said on my show (Thursday) morning that the roof might have come off that place,” said Hinton, the former chair of the ECU Foundation board whose syndicated show “Talk of the Town” airs on both local radio and television. “When we win anything here our fans get excited. But that was huge.”

Houston came into the game with a 15-1 record and hopes for one of four top seeds in next month’s NCAA Tournament. ECU, meanwhile, had yet to win a game during the calendar year 2021 and were still trying to work their way back from a 17-day COVID-19-related layoff that forced the postponement of three games.

The Pirates (8-6. 2-6 American Athletic Conference) pulled off the victory by shooting 47.4% from the floor, committing only seven turnovers and giving star big man Jayden Gardner plenty of help in the scoring column.

Gardner led the way with 12 points, 15 rebounds and four assists, but four others — Tremont Robinson-White (17 points), J.J. Miles (14 points), Bitumba Baruti (13 points) and Tristen Newton (10 points) — also scored in double figures while combining to make 10 of their team’s 11 3-point baskets.

“It’s amazing, man,” Gardner, a 6-foot-7 junior who leads the Pirates in both scoring and rebounding. “We’ve been through so much adversity. We played 3-4 games in January and were out for 17 days. We just had to get back in our rhythm.

“We’ve gotten better with each game that we’ve played. UCF, we came back, and Tulsa, we were right in there. And then Houston, everything clicked tonight. It was great to see everybody step up. That’s a great team win and great for our program.”

It was by far the most significant victory in coach Joe Dooley’s second tenure in Greenville.

Because of the Cougars’ lofty national ranking, it ranks right up there as one of the biggest — if not the biggest — wins in program history.

Not only was it the program’s first win against a top-five team, it was its first against any ranked opponent since knocking off No. 9 Marquette on Feb. 26, 2002. To put into context how long ago that was, now-retired Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade played in that game for the Eagles.

ECU had lost its last 33 games against ranked opponents and nine straight to Houston.

“I’m just letting it sink in that we just beat a top-five team in the country,” Gardner said. “That’s very surreal. It’s the stuff you dream about. To beat a top-five … that’s the best right here.”

Like most ECU supporters, Hinton is hoping that the best is actually still to come.

“A lot of people would say that it’s impossible to win here at East Carolina basketball, but I think Joe has the formula to do it,” Hinton said of Dooley, who earned the 200th win of his coaching career with his first win against a ranked team.

“I think they were on their way before Christmas, then they had that layoff and then he got COVID. But they’ve been in a lot of close games since. Then last night, we saw what the program can be under Joe Dooley.”

Although Dooley’s winning percentage is no longer the highest in school history — as it was when he was surprisingly fired by then-athletic director Mike Hamrick in 1999 — the 55-year-old coach has made steady progress in rebuilding the program since his return from Florida Gulf Coast three seasons ago.

The momentum was slowed following a 7-1 start that included a win against Tulane in the team’s AAC opener by an untimely bout with the coronavirus.

Although Wednesday’s victory is only one game, the result and the manner in which it was achieved is a positive sign of what is possible.

“It’s a great win for the program, and (I’m) hopeful its something that we can build on because they can see you’ve got to win every day in practice,” Dooley said. “You can’t have one day on and one day off. 

“I also like seeing the guys rewarded because this is something they’ve never experienced since they’ve been here.”

The only downside to the victory was it was achieved without fans, especially ECU students.

Although there was a symbolic court storming when the cardboard cutouts that filled some of the courtside seats were put onto the floor for a postgame photo opportunity, the actual celebration was confined to team members and support personnel in the locker room.

“It would have been nice for our fans to share that,” Dooley said. “It would have been an awesome opportunity for our fans to see us win that game. But I’ve got to give credit to kids throughout the country for lining up and (playing) this year.”