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Pirates win first game post-Lebo

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East Carolina's Kentrell Barkley, right, and B.J. Tyson celebrate during their game against Wilmington on Nov. 30, 2017. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Admittedly playing for the head coach who announced his resignation just a day earlier, B.J. Tyson stood at the free throw line with the game in his hands Thursday night in Minges Coliseum.

The senior guard and his East Carolina team trailed UNC Wilmington 79-78 with 6.1 seconds left. Tyson made one of the two shots and tied the game, and ECU took command in overtime to claim a 93-88 triumph in the aftermath of Jeff Lebo’s resignation as head coach on Wednesday.

“This game right here was dedicated to him,” said Tyson, who poured in a career-high 30 points in the victory, including 16 in the first half, of Lebo. “And I’m sure that’s true for the rest of the guys. I told one of the guys on the team I was going to come out here and play with anger, and that’s what I did. I think I left it out there on the court.”

Isaac Fleming added 21, including some key drives and scores late in the second half and in overtime. Shawn Williams added 15 and Dimitri Spasojevic 10 in the win for ECU (3-4).

It was the first victory, this season at least, for stand-in head coach Michael Perry, who also took over for Lebo last season following the coach’s hip surgery.

“They really showed a lot of character,” Perry said of his players in rising to the occasion in difficult circumstances. “I told our athletic director before the game there is a lot more character in that locker room than many people realize. They’re resilient. They bend but they don’t break. Now they have to continue to believe in themselves.”

The victory silenced a monster outing by UNCW forward Devontae Cacok, who rifled home 35 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

Tyson’s lay-up in OT gave the Pirates the cushion they needed with a 90-85 edge, and ECU connected on enough late free throws to seal the game.

“It was like being back at square one,” said Fleming, a Hawaii transfer who has been through numerous coaching changes in his career. “But at the same time, in my head now we have something to prove. A lot of people are probably thinking now that (Lebo) is gone, that team is just going downhill. No. We’re going to keep fighting until the end.”

Leading by six at the break, ECU weathered an early second-half storm by the Seahawks, extending the lead briefly to seven points on Tyson’s drive to the hoop before UNCW cut it back to five near the 15-minute mark.

As the Pirates continued to try to extend the cushion, the Hawks were there to keep it close.

Fleming’s drive and basket with 9:48 left made it 65-58, but Cacok countered immediately at the other end with a drive that drew contact for a three-point play that made it 65-61. Cacok’s inside bucket made it a two-point game before Jordon Talley’s trey put the Seahawks back in front, 72-69 with 5:21 left.

Marcus Bryan connected in the post and then tipped in another inside score to make it 74-70 Hawks with 3:18 remaining before the Pirates rallied again.

The Pirates appeared to be mired in their usual early-game struggles in the first half, falling behind 10-0 open the game, but behind Tyson’s gutsy drive-and-score mentality that gave rise to a game-high 16 points in the half began to take hold.

ECU continued to pester the Seahawks defensively and took its initial lead of the game, 32-20, on Spasojevic’s inside lay-in with just more than 6 minutes left in the half. The Pirates grabbed another lead, 38-35, on Williams 3-pointer with 2:44 left in the opening half before another Spasojevic back-in move inside made it 42-40 and began a 6-2 run to finish the half with the Pirates in front, 48-42.

He had eight points and a team-high six boards in the half.

The biggest difference early in the game was shooting behind the arc, where Jaylen Fornes landed two to help UNCW to 5-for-8 accuracy in the half as opposed to 3-for-9 for ECU.

But the Pirates held a 24-18 edge in the paint that accurately reflected the team’s dribble-and-score mentality. Fleming’s nine first-half points also reflected that. Williams added nine in the opening 20.

For the Seahawks, Cacok sizzled from the floor, going 6-for-6 in the first half for 14 points.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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