Less than a week removed from a coaching change, the ECU men’s basketball team has three straight wins and a new attitude.
The latest victory, an improbable 69-66 comeback win after trailing Campbell by 17 in the second half on Monday night, is just what interim head coach Michael Perry’s team needed heading into a 14-day break for exams.
“Having two weeks off, it couldn’t have been scripted any better,” said Perry, who took over when Jeff Lebo stepped down as head coach last Wednesday. “… It’s easier to teach when you’ve got three wins under your belt during this break. Kids are a lot more receptive. It couldn’t have worked out better.”
The Pirates (5-4), who had lost four of five games before Lebo’s departure, have reeled off wins over UNC Wilmington, Delaware State and Campbell — making clutch plays with each game on the line. But little went right for the better part of 25 minutes against the Camels (4-5), who had won two straight.
Missed free throws and turnovers aided a 12-0 Campbell blitz in the final 3:48 of the first half and a 42-30 lead. The Pirates trailed 51-34 with 15:07 to go.
Adversity had slapped his team in the face, and Perry wanted to see how it would respond.
“The first half we kind of came unglued toward the end of the half,” Perry said. “Heads were down a little bit. We had some bad body language out there, and things kind of came apart a little bit.
“At halftime I really challenged them to grow up, lose some of the dysfunction, to stop being so sensitive amongst themselves and come together,” he said. “I told them I didn’t care about the results of the game in the second half. I didn’t care whether we won or loss. I wanted to see could this team could come together.”
The trio of Isaac Fleming, B.J. Tyson and Kentrell Barkley made sure the Pirates did, repeatedly penetrating the lane to either score or earn trips to the line. Two free throws by Tyson with 8:50 to go brought the margin under double digits at 56-47.
Fleming worked his way into the lane to get the Pirates within 64-60 with 3:10. But Marcus Burk’s one-hand jam off a backdoor cut made it 66-60 with 2:50 to play. The Camels would not score again.
Five free throws brought ECU within one, then Fleming put the Pirates in front for good at 67-66 with 34 seconds to play. The Hawaii transfer also hit go-ahead buckets in wins over Cleveland State and UNCW.
“He’s been clutch, man,” Perry said. “… He’s a winner, and it’s reflected in his play out there. He was one of three alpha dogs that we have. Kentrell Barkley, B.J. Tyson and him. Those were the guys I really directed my message to at halftime. I knew if I could get through to them, other guys would fall in behind them.”
Fleming finished with 19 points. Tyson added 16 points and seven rebounds. Barkley had 14 points and seven rebounds, giving him 503 for his career.
Burk had 21 points to lead the Camels. Shane Whitfield added 12 points, and Cory Gensler recorded his first double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Campbell played without injured guard Chris Clemons, the Big South’s preseason player of the year averaging 22.2 points per game.
Campbell entered Monday’s game ranked eighth nationally on field goal percentage at 52.4 percent but shot just 30.3 percent (10 of 33) in the second half and 38.8 percent (26 of 67) for the game. After hitting 6 of 13 three-pointers in the first half, Campbell knocked in just 1 of 13 the final 20 minutes.
ECU held Campbell to 22.2 percent (6 of 27) shooting in the final 15 minutes while connecting on 11 of 16 shots for 68.8 percent. The Pirates outscored the Camels 27-10 the final 10 minutes.
“We locked up, and we just played defense, we made them miss, and we took care of it on the offensive end,” Tyson said.
That was just what Perry wanted to see.
“It showed a lot of mental toughness, physical toughness,’” he said. “The guys really dug down deep to pull this one out. I was as proud of a team as I’ve ever been associated with … especially the second half.”