East Carolina trying to find rhythm as SMU visits

·2 min read

There is a growing sense that East Carolina is better than its overall record as the Pirates prepare to host SMU in an American Athletic Conference game on Monday night in Greenville, N.C.

That was certainly the feeling after the Pirates stunned then-No. 5 Houston 82-73 on Wednesday.

But that is the only win for East Carolina (8-7, 2-7 AAC) since Dec. 22. Since then, the Pirates have lost six of seven games, including Saturday's 66-59 setback at Memphis. They have also had three games postponed or canceled due to COVID-19 issues.

"It's been challenging at times," ECU forward Jayden Gardner said. "Players and coaches have been out with COVID. We just have to push forward."

Gardner has done a good job at that, ranking second in the league in scoring (17.7), rebounding (8.6) and minutes (34.4).

The Pirates lead the conference in assists and assists-to-turnover ratio, showing that coach Joe Dooley's team is playing unselfish ball despite the string of losses.

Meanwhile, the Mustangs (10-4, 6-4) have won four of their last six games, most recently edging Tulsa 65-63 on Wednesday.

It was the 100th win at SMU for Tim Jankovich, making him the fastest coach to reach that milestone in program history (153 games).

SMU's Yor Anei made his first career start in the game and came up with a key block in the final minute.

Mustangs point guard Kendric Davis had 22 points and 10 assists in a slump-busting effort. In his prior three games, he had averaged just 8.3 points.

Davis credits an unusual source -- a rival coach -- for helping restore his confidence.

"(Memphis') Penny Hardaway gave me respect and said I was the best player in the league," Davis said.

Hardaway may be right. Davis ranks third in the nation in assists (7.6). He also ranks third in the AAC in scoring (17.1), free-throw shooting (84.2 percent) and minutes (34.0).

Other SMU standouts include Feron Hunt, who is third in the league in rebounds (8.3), and Charles Smith, who is shooting 48.7 percent from 3-point distance.

"Charles is one of the best shooters in this conference," Davis said.

SMU won the first meeting this season in Dallas, with Davis scoring 17 points in a 70-55 victory on Dec. 16.

If the Pirates are to pull the upset on Monday, they will need secondary scoring behind Gardner. JJ Miles, who averages 10.3 points, could be that second scorer, and the Pirates will also need big games from Tristen Newton and Tremont Robinson-White, who both rank in the top 10 in the league in assists.

--Field Level Media