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SUMMERS: Dooley takes one for the team

Houston East Carolina Basketball-7

East Carolina head coach Joe Dooley shouts at a referee moments before being ejected during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Houston in Greenville, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Friday, March 1, 2019

There is still some fire in Minges Coliseum.

When boos — and a few water bottles — cascaded down from the seats inside East Carolina’s basketball home early in the second half on Wednesday night, it conjured an energy the building has not felt in a long time, save for some concerts on non-game nights.

Boos in a sports venue are not ideal for the home team, and the Pirates were KO’d in the game by No. 8 Houston, 99-65, but the emotion was raw and real. It seems a somewhat curious venture when a school urges fans to pack their home arena to see their team face the tallest odds of the entire season, but in this case, the 4,087 spectators were witness to an uncommonly rowdy ECU basketball event, something not seen more than a few times in the last decade.

Now the onus is on ECU fans to make it that way every time, and not just when a top 10 team is in town. That’s always been the challenge with ECU basketball.

When head coach Joe Dooley was in the ear of lead official Tony Greene two minutes into the second half following the first in a series of hotly contested calls, ultimately earning his first career ejection, he was either consciously or subconsciously working on that long-standing ECU hoops culture void.

Imagine never being tossed from a game in 31 years, then suddenly pressing the right button on a veteran officiating crew. Dooley said he was surprised, said his players were surprised. But in a game that eventually saw sophomore Shawn Williams also tossed along with a handful of fans in what became a cauldron, one can’t help but wonder if it was on purpose.

If it was, good for Dooley.

Anyone who has followed sports for any period of time is aware that sometimes you have to play the role of antagonist in order to rally the support success demands. If you have ever seen a hockey fight or a baseball manager kicking dirt on an umpire, you understand.

There is a temptation to lay it all at the feet of the officials for affecting the outcome of a game, but the reality is the Pirates were down by nearly 20 and fading fast when the game went off its rails. And in that sense, the timing was perfect.

There was no victory to be had on the scoreboard, but there was one to be had both on the Pirates’ bench and in the Minges seats that were not full but were a good deal closer to it than usual. Whether intentional or not, Dooley united a fan base that’s been splintered for a long time and which has put its faith in a slew of coaches since his first stint in Greenville in the 1990s.

Dooley might have won his team and the fans over, even as he simultaneously took responsibility for the outcome of the game when he addressed his team afterward.

On the other side, Houston not only got the win — its 27th in 28 games this season — but also carried the distinction of keeping its collective head during the string of technical fouls and ejections for the Pirates. UH head coach Kelvin Sampson reminded his players when things got testy to keep their heads, that there would likely be hard fouls coming their way and to simply walk away from them.

Houston has a lot to lose. The Pirates do not, at least not yet. Dooley doesn’t boast the talent, depth or experience it takes to contend with a potential NCAA tournament heavyweight, or to simply turn the other cheek in a testy situation. Against the Cougars, he instead tried to inspire his team’s willingness to stand up for itself.

Building a team of Houston’s caliber takes time, experience and ups and downs. And sometimes a few technical fouls.

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

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