In a cavernous arena bereft of a bona fide March atmosphere, East Carolina’s forlorn season came to a mostly quiet conclusion Thursday afternoon.
Except for the echo of the clangs.
Unable to offset South Florida’s interior brawn with consistent outside scoring, the eighth-seeded Pirates (12-20) fell 71-66 in the American Athletic Conference tournament’s opening round at Amway Center. ECU finished 6-for-30 from 3-point range in its first loss in five conference tournament openers under Coach Jeff Lebo.
“Neither team could make a shot, but 6 of 30 for us, we had a rough night shooting the basketball,” said Lebo, who was without an ill Caleb White, the team’s top 3-pointer shooter.
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“For us, as small as we are, we’ve got to be able to make those perimeter shots. Didn’t make (them) today.”
The Bulls (8-24) appeared poised to salt things away when 6-foot-8 junior Chris Perry converted a put-back to give USF a 60-53 lead with 3:38 to go. But the Pirates answered with Lance Tejada’s 3-pointer and ensuing layup on a nifty drive through the lane to make it a two-point game.
USF, a 52-39 loser to ECU on its senior night only eight days before, answered with a Bo Zeigler layup and alley-oop dunk by 6-11 senior Jaleel Cousins to build its cushion back to 64-58 with 1:24 remaining.
The Pirates never came within three points the rest of the way.
On a night when they effectively neutralized Bulls freshman scoring leader Jahmal McMurray, who had six points, the Pirates watched USF’s big men get behind and in the heart of their 2-3 zone.
Perry had 18 points off the bench for the Bulls, though 6-8 senior Angel Nunez, who had 19 points, 11 boards, inflicted the most damage. An 11.4-percent 3-point shooter (4-for-35) in conference play, Nunez had two 3-pointers en route to only the third double-double of his career.
“Our emphasis was on (Nehemias) Morillo and McMurray, keeping their numbers down,” Lebo said. “We did that, but Nunez played really well today.”
Employing two 6-11 post players in its seven-man rotation, USF finished with a 42-28 advantage in points in the paint, and had five blocked shots by halftime, when it led 28-27.
Keeping ECU close during the half was Tejada (17 points), who hit two treys during a stretch of three consecutive Pirates 3-pointers that gave them a 20-15 lead. By halftime, Tejada was 3-for-3 from long range.
“When I hit the third shot I felt like I had some momentum going, but I really just wanted to get my team into it,” he said. “I was trying to do anything for us to win at that moment.”
The Pirates struggled to regain their outside touch after intermission, missing their first seven 3-pointers of the second half and finishing 2-for-16 in the final 20 minutes. Tejada accounted for the only two.
“Down a guy was really tough for us; Caleb White’s one of our best shooters,” Lebo said. “But give them credit. I thought they played very well, hurt us in the paint area.”