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Pirates in late game vs. Wichita State

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East Carolina's Jayden Gardner was named to the American Athletic Conference all-freshman team, but the freshman of the year award went to Alexis Yetna from South Florida.

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BY RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The American Athletic Conference announced its basketball season awards Wednesday and the league tournament begins Thursday in Memphis, Tenn.

East Carolina’s Jayden Gardner was in the running for freshman of the year, but it went to South Florida’s Alexis Yetna, and the No. 11 seed Pirates (10-20) will tip off against six-seed Wichita State at approximately 10:30 p.m. at the FedEx Forum. Like in past years, ECU will have to pull upset victories to create some type of postseason run.

“The biggest thing about it is making sure our guys continue to compete, which they will,” Pirate coach Joe Dooley, who is near the end of a frustrating first season in his second stint leading ECU, said on Tuesday in Greenville. “Everybody is in the same boat, even though the top four seeds are obviously in a little bit different situation as they are playing for NCAA seeds. It comes down to one mistake and you are eliminated.”

Cincinnati’s Jarron Cumberland earned AAC player of the year. Coach of the year went to Houston’s Kelvin Sampson. Connecticut big man Josh Carlton, who began his prep career at South Central High School, was named most improved player.

The Pirates have three seniors, led by guard Isaac Fleming and his streak of six straight games scoring at least 13 points. All of the seniors — Fleming joined by Addison Hill and Justice Obasohan — had positive moments Sunday when ECU hosted UConn and lost 82-73.

Gardner, Hill and other Pirate forwards will have difficult assignments against the size and talent of Wichita (17-13), which has a 9-2 record in its last 11 games.

“I think I accomplished everything I thought I could accomplish this year, beside the ‘Ws’ part,” said Gardner, who averaged 16.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game during the regular season. “Now I know what to expect from this league and what I need to do to get better. We just have to start translating all of that stuff to actual wins for the team.”

Wichita State is like Memphis and other middle-of-the pack AAC teams in that the Shockers need to win this week’s tourney to make the NCAA tournament field. Wichita, which is already 2-0 against the Pirates this season, has been to the NCAAs seven straight years.

“This will be our first time in a long time that we are playing for an NCAA tournament bid,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said on the league’s teleconference. “Most of the those seven years, we were solidly in. ... This is new territory for us and kind of expected with how we started the season and our roster.

“We’ll go now and just try to do the best we can in this tournament and win as many games as we can. If we can get to Sunday then we’ll play our butts off and try to make it eight straight, but if not, then we’ll probably end up in one of the other tournaments.”

The host Tigers are the No. 5 seed. The ECU-Wichita State winner will face No. 3 Temple on Friday night. Houston (29-2) comes into the tourney as the favorite and ranked 11th nationally.

Marshall noted ECU’s upset potential with the Pirates’ 73-71 win over second-place Cincinnati on Jan. 5. ECU’s other two league wins came against Tulane.

“Joe Dooley is just trying to rebuild that program,” Marshall said. “I’m sure they will be a lot better next year and they beat Cincinnati, so they are obviously very talented on a given night.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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Humans of Greenville

@HumansofGville

Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

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