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View from the 'ville
Thursday, December 6, 2007

By Al Myatt

Tigers tame big-time atmosphere

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

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 team.

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 fans yelled.

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 advantage.

"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 atmosphere."

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 2007-08.

"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 environment.

"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 response.

"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."

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12/06/2007 04:34:32 AM


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