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CASTLEBERRY: Can Pirates finally build on momentum?

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ECU's B.J. Tyson jumps for the basket during a game against Temple on Feb. 15, 2017. (Joe Pellegrino/The Daily Reflector)

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By TONY CASTLEBERRY
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Three times this American Athletic Conference basketball season the East Carolina Pirates have laid the foundation for extended success, then laid an egg in the next game.

After starting American play with a 60-49 victory over South Florida on Dec. 28, the Pirates were blown out 75-44 at home against league power SMU.

On Jan. 25, ECU edged Tulsa at home 69-66, then lost 57-50 at Memphis on Jan. 28.

There is no shame in losing to SMU anywhere or Memphis on the road, where East Carolina has struggled for years against many foes in several conferences, but the next away defeat that followed a victory likely befuddled even the most diehard Pirate supporter. ECU took care of Tulane 74-65 in Minges Coliseum on Feb. 4, and all signs pointed to the team finally getting its first true road victory of the season at USF on Saturday.

East Carolina’s Dec. 28 win versus the Bulls was the first of 12 consecutive losses for South Florida, which changed coaches midseason and should have been ripe for the picking after getting hammered 97-51 at Connecticut on Feb. 8. The Pirates raced out to an 11-2 lead, but could not make it stand up as USF closed the first half with a 13-0 run punctuated by Bo Zeigler’s dunk at the halftime buzzer.

Giving up the dunk was bad enough. Letting Zeigler fly through the lane unencumbered when the Pirates had a foul to give in the final seconds was indefensible.

ECU never led in the second half of the 64-57 loss, and once again, it was not able to build on the momentum a victory should have provided. 

The Pirates are in a similar position this week, but they might be better prepared to avoid a letdown this time.

Wednesday’s 78-64 home win over Temple in Minges was ECU’s most complete game of the season. Not only was the 14-point triumph over the Owls, who had won three of four and were coming off a 74-62 win at Memphis on Sunday, the Pirates’ largest margin of victory in the AAC this season, they also shot 47.5 percent from the field, a season high in league games, and outrebounded Temple 44-35.

Just days after South Florida crushed East Carolina in points off turnovers and bench scoring, the Pirates enjoyed 20-8 and 33-17 advantages, respectively, in those categories on Wednesday. Kentrell Barkley, who did not start for the first time all season for disciplinary reasons, had 19 of those bench points, and reserve Michel Nzege ended an 18-game streak of not reaching double-figure scoring with a season-high 11 points.

Along with those positive trends, senior sharpshooter Caleb White has scored at least 12 points in each of his last three games after only hitting double figures twice in the previous 10 outings, Andre Washington poured in 15 points against Temple for his highest-scoring game since getting 21 against Stetson on Nov. 20 and junior guard B.J. Tyson, who led ECU in scoring as a freshman and sophomore, played for the first time since a Jan. 11 knee injury sidelined him.

Up next for the Pirates is Central Florida on Saturday in Greenville. Whether or not they follow success with success is mostly up them, and they have rarely been in a better spot to keep a good thing going.  

Contact Tony Castleberry at tcastleberry@reflector.com, 252-329-9591 and follow @tcastleberrygdr on Twitter.

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