Jayden Gardner sat at midcourt waiting to check in during the second half when he simply raised his right arm as East Carolina basketball teammate Bitumba Baruti made a long jump shot to tie Saturday’s game against favored SMU and liven the Minges Coliseum crowd of 4,014.
It was part of a slew of key sequences when Gardner was getting a breather and not in the game, but his teammates made clutch shots for the Pirates in their eventual 71-68 win to extend their Minges Coliseum winning streak to six games.
Gardner subbed out with 9:24 remaining and ECU trailing 54-52. J.J. Miles’ 3-pointer made it 55-54 Pirates for their first lead of the second half. Baruti’s shot created a 57-57 tie at the 7:05 mark before a media timeout at 6:48 allowed for Gardner, who finished with 20 points and nine rebounds, to re-enter.
Two Gardner free throws made it 68-66 Pirates (8-8, 2-1 American Athletic Conference) with 30 seconds left, but it was 68-68 for the game’s final possession when point guard Tremont Robinson-White came off a Gardner screen and passed to a wide-open freshman. That freshman, Tristen Newton, made the corner 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds remaining for the win.
“I was struggling most of the night, so it was nice to just see my teammates make big plays down the stretch,” said Gardner, the AAC’s leading scorer at 21.3 points per game. “J.J. hit a bunch of big shots in a row and Tristen hit a bunch of big shots. (Tyrie Jackson) started out early and hot, so it was nice to see a lot guys gaining confidence.
“Like I touched on last game, this team hasn’t reached its ceiling yet and we’re going to keep getting better and better.”
Gardner produced another solid game in nearly achieving another double-double. He was 0-for-4 on 3-pointers, but his teammates helped the victors finish 11-for-28 from the outside.
ECU entered as the worst 3-point shooting team in the American, ranking last in the league all in 3s made (81), 3s attempted (278) and 3-point percentage (29.1).
But the Pirates made their first three attempts — two by Jackson — for an 11-3 lead, and their surge midway through the second half was aided by Miles (nine points, 3-of-8 from 3-point range) and other guards. Newton scored 11 and was 3-for-5 from the outside.
“I try not to overreact before actually really watching the film, but I know they have not been a great 3-point shooting team and we made them look like one,” SMU fourth-year coach Tim Jankovich said. “We started the (second) half in the wrong way and that I am positive of because it was obvious. But the others, are we contesting them or a little bit late is what we’ll have to see.
“We did not need them, at all, to have that kind of night. That is not who they have been and not who we thought they would be, but obviously we allowed it and that was to our detriment.”
ECU trailed by as many as 13 points during the opening minute of the second half, but it was SMU (12-3, 2-1) that couldn’t hold that lead and had its four-game win streak stopped.
SMU ranked second in the AAC in 3-point shooting at 35.4 percent, but it was 8-for-30 in the loss. It led 38-27 at halftime.
Isiaha Mike scored a game-high 21 points and made 5-of-9 from 3 for the Mustangs. The rest of his team was 3-for-21.
“They were struggling to score in the first half, but we allowed them to shoot some flat-out horse (open) shots to start the second half,” said Jankovich, who worked with East Carolina head coach Joe Dooley when they both were assistants at Kansas under Bill Self. “I think that was our biggest mistake, and it gave them another mentality. From there, you are in a dogfight and you always are on the road. I am very disappointed, but I want to give them a lot of credit.”