Every program rebuild takes on different layers, and East Carolina’s women’s basketball team experienced one of those all-too-familiar growing pains on Wednesday night the hard way, even in the midst of one of the team’s most successful seasons to date since entering the American Athletic Conference.
Winners of five of their last six, and already with a road win under their belts at Memphis, the Pirates returned home hoping to move into a tie for second place as the Tigers came to town for a return match. Instead, ECU saw the game get away from it in the final quarter of a 61-53 loss to Memphis inside Minges Coliseum. The Tigers closed the game on a 12-1 run, and ECU scored just one point over the final 6:23.
ECU dropped to 14-7 overall and 5-3 in league play. Even with the setback, the Pirates are having their best season under fourth-year coach Kim McNeilwhose team posted win totals of 9, 8 and 11 the previous three seasons.
“It definitely is part of the process,” McNeill said. “I kept saying the last two days, ‘Don’t get comfortable. Don’t worry about what our record is right now, don’t worry about where we are in the league to this point because there’s a lot of basketball left to play.’ This is a really, really hard league. It’s a part of learning how to win and a part of learning how to continue to win, and understanding we still have a lot of growing to do.”
McNeill’s staff and players pride themselves on creating havoc on the defensive end of the floor, and scoring in bunches off turnovers in the process. In their most recent road win at Wichita State, ECU forced 27 turnovers and scored 40 points off them. On Jan. 3 at Memphis, East Carolina forced Memphis into 26 turnovers and had 11 steals. Those numbers dropped considerably on Wednesday, as Memphis limited itself to 14 turnovers. ECU scored just eight fastbreak points.
McNeill apologized to Pirate Nation in her postgame comments for her team’s effort, specifically citing the rebounding performance that resulted in 17 offensive boards for the Tigers and a plus-13 advantage overall.
“Kudos to Memphis, they wanted it more than we did and they earned that,” McNeill said. “We didn’t deserve to win that game. They came in and were a lot tougher than us. They executed their game plan and came out on top. We lost ourselves tonight. We lose our identity. We lost who we are. We win games on the defensive end of the floor. Us only turning someone over only 14 times and having only eight steals, that’s not who we are.
“I saw it the last two days in practice and I saw it this morning in shootaround. That’s on me. It’s my job to get them fired up and my job to get them to understand what our identity is. We got too comfortable. But mark my words, we’re going to get back after it.”
ECU got 19 points from leading scorer Danae McNeal in the loss. Freshman forward Amiya Joyner added 13 rebounds and eight points. Micah Dennis scored nine.
With the loss, ECU is just a half-game up on SMU and Memphis for third place in the league. The Pirates trail Tulsa for second place by a half game. First-place USF (19-4, 8-0 AAC) welcomes ECU to Tampa on Tuesday or next week. In the mean time, the Pirates will spend the weekend off working on themselves and aiming to grow from Wednesday’s learning lesson.
“It’s definitely something we can learn from,” McNeal said. “I feel like the energy wasn’t really there in our last few practices. We’ve got to correct that, and we will.”