DYLAN JOHNSON/ESPN Greenville
The East Carolina University Pirates pulled off a 73-71 upset win over the University of Cincinnati inside Minges Coliseum on Saturday.
The win over the reigning American Athletic Conference champion Bearcats gave first-year head coach Joe Dooley a signature win in his second stint at ECU (8-6, 1-1 AAC).
The win was the most impressive by the Pirates in years, certainly the most impressive since joining the AAC in 2014. It also sent a message to the AAC for ECU having a new standard.
“This is the Dooley era,” Freshman forward Jayden Gardner said.
Cincinnati played a bad game, evidenced by the season-high 73 points it allowed. Head coach Mick Cronin said it was the worst defense he has seen since he became the coach and said his team seemed arrogant at times.
But ECU also played well, and did everything it takes for an upset win to happen. The Pirates shot a better field goal percentage (51 to 48) shot a ridiculously better percentage from three (41 to 16) and the free throw line (69 to 44), turned the ball over fewer times (12 to 15) and outscored the Bearcats bench by a large margin (25-6).
Things certainly didn’t start off smoothly for the Pirates, falling to a 9-0 deficit in the first four minutes of the game before forward KJ Davis came off the bench and injected ECU with energy.
Davis scored eight of the Pirates’ first 10 points by himself and went on to score a career-high 17 points and play outstanding defense. After the 9-0 start, ECU outscored Cincinnati 36-18 the rest of the first half for a 36-27 lead.
The Pirates built that lead with its leading scorer Gardner not scoring in the first half but still contributing with 10 rebounds. Senior guard Isaac Fleming contributed a three-pointer in the first half, despite only shooting 1-for-21 on three’s all season entering the game.
In the second half, ECU’s stars took over the game as the Pirates battled back and forth to fight off the Bearcats comeback. Gardner scored all 13 of his points in the second half and sophomore guard Shawn Williams scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half.
That didn’t keep it from being nerve-wracking in the final minutes, as Gardner and big man Seth LeDay both fouled out and Cincinnati had possession with 6.5 seconds left and a chance to win the game. Justice Obasohan secured a block against the Bearcats’ best player, Jarron Cumberland, and Davis made sure no other Cincy players got a put-back.
Now it’s no secret that Dooley is changing the culture at ECU and has players believing in themselves. Davis said that after last year he never would’ve thought a year later the Pirates would come back and defeat Cincinnati.
The next challenge is for ECU to prove it can play with better teams on the road. ECU is 0-4 on the road this season and has three of its next four AAC games on the road. That all begins with the Pirates traveling to Memphis Thursday night for a 9 p.m. tip-off on ESPNU.