GREENVILLE — On nights when big name
opponents invade Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum, an almost symbiotic
relationship develops between the crowd and the East Carolina basketball
It was that way when ECU
stunned Dwyane Wade and a Marquette team that would eventually reach the
Final Four when the 9th-ranked Golden Eagles came to Minges on Dec. 30,
2002. ECU hung on for a 73-70 upset as Wade misfired in the final
seconds. The Pirates had an occasional crowd-stoking win over former
Conference USA giants Louisville and Marquette before those programs
exited the league.
So it was as No. 17 Clemson came to
town on Wednesday night.
The crowd, large and loud by ECU
standards, inspired the players. The harder the fans yelled, the harder
the Pirates played and the harder the Pirates played, the harder the
ECU was out to a 16-13 lead after a
three-pointer by Sam Hinnant with just under 14 minutes left in the
first half. Unfortunately, it wouldn't last.
"They kind of sat down on us with their
press," Hinnant said.
The Tigers extended their defensive
pressure, Hinnant took a break on the bench and Clemson was soon in the
midst of a decisive 17-0 run.
"Their full-out pressure makes you play
at a speed that's a little bit uncomfortable," said ECU coach Mack
McCarthy. "It's one thing to dribble and pass, but it's more difficult
to make good decisions at that speed and we made some bad decisions."
In Bill Herrion's last season as
basketball coach at East Carolina in 2004-05, the Pirates played at
Clemson on Dec. 29 and lost 74-40. Three seasons later and Clemson paid
the Pirates a return visit.
The first Clemson-ECU encounter was two
coaches ago for the Pirates. There wasn't a lot of electricity at
Littlejohn Coliseum because most of the students were on Christmas
break. The Tigers met with a little more resistance in their second
hoops matchup with ECU.
The 17-0 first-half run and a 50-26
rebounding advantage were two factors that helped Clemson improve to 8-0
with an 82-67 victory.
"The obvious stat is the rebounding
situation," McCarthy said. "The factors we said would be important were
rebounding and turnovers. The turnovers are a little misleading because
we took some bad shots.
"On their end, they just kept
rebounding until they made it."
Clemson (8-0) finished with 20
second-chance points compared to just two for ECU (3-5).
Trevor Booker, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound
sophomore inside player, grabbed 17 rebounds for Clemson. Raymond Sykes,
a 6-9 presence in the paint, played with his hair pulled back in a
ponytail and also was a headache for ECU.
"Booker and Sykes were some really
tough matchups," said ECU sophomore post player John Fields.
If you're looking for reasons why the
Pirates weren't blown out to the same extent as their only other
previous matchup with the Tigers, you can start with the supportive home
crowd of 6,556.
There were 1,500 fans wearing black
T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Walk the Plank," which were
distributed as a promotion. ECU also wore new black uniforms as part of
the night's "Black Out" theme. Add the dance team and the pep band that
help bring the arena to life and you've got a significant home court
"The packed house was great with the
'Black Out' and everything," said Hinnant, a junior guard who led the
Pirates with 16 points. "I'd like to thank our fans. It was a great
As one alumnus told me not to long ago,
"My support of the East Carolina basketball program is opponent-driven."
The support had dwindled with the
exodus of a number of C-USA powers into other league affiliations.
Pirates coach Mack McCarthy was
responsible for getting Clemson on an impressive home schedule for
"The crowd was tremendous and the
atmosphere was tremendous," McCarthy said. "The kids might have been a
little too juiced. Clemson's got a lot of weapons."
Two of the Tigers weapons were
unavailable due to their recovery from injuries. Senior forwards James
Mays and Sam Perry will be back and when they return, they will give
Clemson the potential to be even better.
"When they get those other two kids
back, I don't know how good they can be," McCarthy said.
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell had been
into the Pirates' den before as coach at Radford and Old Dominion. He
was pleased with how the Tigers performed in survival mode in a hostile
"It's the end of a tough stretch for
us," Purnell said. "It was a game that had been marked on the calendar
by ECU fans with the Black Out and all that. We focused on maintaining
poise and ratcheted up the energy level. We shot well. I thought we
played well in the meat of the game.
"I'm pretty pleased with a solid game
in a tough environment. We'll go back for exams. We aced this one. ...
We took the starch out of the crowd by kind of settling down and
playing. I thought the crowd was a factor early in the first half. As we
kind of built the lead, it took the crowd out of the game."
The Tigers were the first ACC opponent
to play the Pirates in Greenville since 1969. Only three of the losses
in ECU's 0-54 record of futility against the ACC in hoops have come on
the Pirates' home court.
Still, the ECU players prefer the
big-time atmosphere to dominating an overmatched opponent.
"I love games like this," Fields said.
"Clemson is one of the better basketball teams in the nation and we want
a measuring stick as players and as a team. We don't want to play
Limestone or (N.C.) Central. We'd rather play ACC teams."
Asked what ECU needed to do to improve
on the rebounding ratio, McCarthy looked the questioning media
representative in the eye and simply said, "Recruit."
Then the Pirates coach expanded on his
"We've got young kids who have to get
stronger," he said. "We need to get bigger and stronger. There was an
obvious difference in strength and athletic ability tonight. We have to
stay committed to the weight room and get those guys bigger and
stronger. We've got to do a better job of five guys scrapping on the
boards and we better do it fast."
Sure enough, it won't be four decades
before another ACC opponent plays ECU at home. It won't even be four
days. ECU will probably surpass the home court advantage it had against
Clemson when N.C. State ventures in on Saturday night, another primetime
Pirate production brought to you by the scheduling efforts of McCarthy
and the reassuring influence of athletic director Terry Holland.
"They're blending in some new guys and
are really a dangerous team," McCarthy said of the Wolfpack. "If they
get the right draw, they're a team that can go a long way in the
tournament. And I'm not talking about the ACC Tournament."