PirateIllustrated - Pirates Top USF 62-59 For First AAC Victory Of The Season
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Pirates Top USF 62-59 For First AAC Victory Of The Season

It's never is easy to win in the tough American Athletic Conference and ECU found that out first hand Tuesday night. USF turned a twelve point second half Pirate lead into a nail biter down the stretch before the Pirates held on to get a 62-59 victory.

In the first home conference game of the season, Jayden Gardner poured in 23 points to go along with 10 rebounds to lead ECU(7-8/1-1 AAC). He got help in the form of 12 Brandon Suggs points and nine more from Tyrie Jackson. But it was a confident Bitumba Baruti trey from the top of the key with 1:26 to play that broke a tie game that really set a tone down the stretch.

“It was a big, huge three and the one before it (that he narrowly missed) looked good. He’s played good the last three or four games. He played really good at Wichita State and played well against Eastern Kentucky and did some really good things,” said ECU head coach Joe Dooley, “His numbers weren’t spectacular but he did a lot of things to help us win the game tonight which was important. He’s starting to feel a little more comfortable and confident.”

For Gardner, another twenty-plus effort has his scoring average inching up closer to 22 points a game which leads the AAC. He talked about the dramatics of Tuesday night’s win that moved his team back to within one game of .500 at 7-8 after an injury plagued 2-7 start to the season for ECU.

“It was like a movie. It had it’s ups, it had it’s downs, but ultimately you come out with a good feeling at the end when you leave the movie,” said Gardner, “We played hearts out tonight. We had stretches where we were amazing. We had stretches where we were bad. We had stretches where we were just solid and solid wins a lot of games in this league.”

How big was it for ECU to pick up a win to begin a three-game AAC home stand?

“It’s big. We showed a lot of heart and grit and I think it’s just huge for us, the coaches and the fan base,” Gardner stated.

Brandon Suggs recapped the Pirates’ defensive effort against an improving USF team that is now at 8-8 for the year.

“I felt like our defense was good. Toward the end of the game we got a little happy with the score when we went up by like 13,” Suggs told PI, “I think we got comfortable which made them come on a run, but I think we were solid enough at the end to get the win.”

ECU held USF to just 35 percent shooting overall including just 4 for 21 from three-point land and despite getting to the foul line 26 times, the Bulls made just 15 of them. The Pirates started off semi cold in the first half before 54 percent second half shooting and 7 for 18 shooting from the arc for the game ultimately did the trick despite only getting to the stripe four times in the second half, making two.

Dooley was both received and appreciative to get the team’s first AAC victory of the season.

“Good win for our guys. I thought we got off to a pretty good start and our defense carried us for the most part today which we needed to,” said Dooley, “The Big thing I was happy with was when we got ourselves in the jam at the end and they took the lead, we sort of found a way to battle our way out of it."

“You’ve been controlling the game the whole game and then all of the sudden someone takes the lead, you’ve got a choice of feeling sorry for yourselves or go out and do something about it and the guys went out and did something about it.”

Dooley rendered his biggest takeaways from the victory over the Bulls on Tuesday night.

“We did some really good things. We also didn’t help ourselves going 9 for 20 from the free throw line. Turnovers in the second half - we got a little sped up,” Dooley told PirateIllustrated.com, “We talk about it all the time. We defended. We weren’t great on offense, but we didn’t give up too many points which obviously helps.”

HOW IT HAPPENED

Jayden Gardner scored the first seven ECU points in a 9-4 contest early for the Pirates while USF hit just 2-13 from the floor in the first eight minutes including 0-3 from the arc.

Xavier Castaneda's runner in the lane and a Justin Brown three-pointer got the Bulls back to within three at 16-13 before a pair of Tyree Jackson treys expanded the ECU lead to six with 8:30 to play.

The ECU lead grew to ten at 26-16 on a Gardner trey before USF put on a comeback to trim the lead to three at 31-28 at the half. Gardner led all scorers with 15 first half points. Xavier Castaneda scored eight points in the first twenty minutes to lead the Bulls.

ECU got a pair of quick early baskets from Gardner in the lane and Tyree Jackson to open the second half for a quick seven point lead. Suggs and Coleman got in the act before another Gardner basket gave ECU a 42-33 lead.

J.J. Miles launched in a trey and Tristen Newton drove in the paint to put ECU up 47-35 before Gardner and Suggs both scored to make it 51-38 Pirates with 13 minutes to play.

David Collins’ driving three-point play in the lane and a subsequent bucket cut the Pirate lead to eight before Laquinch Rideau’s drive to the basket suddenly had the Bulls back within six at 51-45.

USF then cut the ECU lead to four on a baseline jumper from B.J. Mack and a Justin Brown trey with 6:30 to play cut the ECU lead to one at 55-54.

After a five minute ECU scoring drought, the Bulls finally tied the game at 55-55 on a Rideau free throw. Rideau’s subsequent floater in the lane with 3:02 to go gave the Bulls their first lead of the game at 57-55.

Bitumba Baruti’s three-point bomb with 1:20 remaining gave ECU a three-point lead. But a Collins layup for USF cut the lead back to one and when Tremont Robinson-White’s free throw attempt on a one-and-one missed, USF got the ball with 25 seconds to go but Rideau’s drive to the basket came up short and Tristen Newton was fouled on the rebound.

Newton then hit two free throws to put ECU up by three with 15 seconds left on the game clock and when USF came up empty again and ECU held on for the win.

The Pirates take on SMU on Saturday as the Pirates’ home stand continues. Game time is at 3 o’clock.

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