Through 15 lead changes and 13 ties, the Pirates emerged with a 77-75 victory at Minges Coliseum.
Senior shooting guard Paris Roberts-Campbell spilt a pair of free-throws to give ECU the lead with 39 seconds remaining. Clinging to a slim advantage, the Pirates stymied the Trojans (5-4) on their last two offensive possessions – highlighted by Antonio Robinson drawing a charge and freshman Brandan Stith's block of Dory Hines' last-second lay-up attempt – to secure the win.
Stith recorded a career-high 13 points and a tied for a team-high nine rebounds. Meanwhile, Mount Olive guard Dontrell Brite poured in a game-high 30 points on 12-of-20 shooting to keep the Trojans within striking distance. Pirates' senior sharpshooter Akeem Richmond said they were caught off-guard by the lower-echelon opponent.
"I feel like we just overlooked those guys. It's a wake-up call for us. We can't overlook anyone because everyone is good at this level," said Richmond. "We just have to take it one day at a time and continue to work hard."
Jeff Lebo improves his record against non-Division I competition to 15-0 since arriving at ECU in 2010 and has stressed to his team that they could lose on any given day.
"I tell them all the time. I guess it takes them losing one for them to be humbled by it," said Lebo. "It happens all the time. You can say it as a coach until you're blue in the face, but they almost tasted (a let-down) today."
Due in large-part to its depleted front-line, ECU must shoot a high-percentage from three-point range in order to win. That did not happen Sunday – making just 2-of-16 (13 percent) attempts. It was not until Roberts-Campbell's jumper at the 12:36 mark of the second half that ECU booked a three-point field goal.
"They took (the three-point shot) away with a lot of their switching. It bothered us. We never got into any kind of rhythm shooting the ball from out there," said Lebo.
Although Richmond supplied a team-best 16 points, he went 1-for-10 on 3's after capturing a career-high 38 point performance that featured a school-record 10 3-pointers. He converted on 11 of his 14 attempts from the charity stripe.
It did not look like Sunday's game would be a nail-biter in the first 10 minutes. ECU led Mount Olive 18-9 following Prince Williams' lay-up with under 11 minutes left until half-time. Behind Brite's hot hand, the Trojans strung together a 10-3 run that trimmed the Pirates' lead to 21-19. Brite had eight points in that spurt, capping it with a three-point jumper.
ECU would build its lead up to six points on three separate occasions in the first half, but Mount Olive always had the answer. Trailing 36-30, the Trojans closed the half on a 9-2 run to go into halftime leading 39-38. Understandably, Lebo was not enthused by this.
"He put it on us at halftime. He really chewed us out and told us that we weren't playing aggressive, we were letting them have any shot they want, we weren't rebounding, we weren't anything," said Richmond on Lebo's half-time message. "He really got after us at halftime and it really helped out a lot."
Despite Lebo calling out his team, Mount Olive grasped tightly to its lead and did not allow the Pirates to get anything easily. Even when ECU re-took its lead, Brite continually responded. Facing a 52-48 deficit, Brite scored the Trojans' next 12 points on four three-point plays – two requiring complementary free throws – to recapture the lead 60-56.
The game would teeter back and forth for the rest of the game until the Pirates' two key defensive stops in the final minute. First, it was Robinson staying in front of his former teammate at Louisburg College Josh Hicks and drawing the charge with 9 seconds remaining.
"I knew he was a driver, so he was going to stick his head down and try to score. So I stepped over to help (Richmond) out and took the charge," said Robinson, who closed with 15 points (5-of-7 shooting).
Robinson was fouled by Brite on the ensuing inbounds-play to disqualify Mount Olive's most dangerous scoring threat, but could only split the free throw tries to put ECU in front 77-75.
With Brite on the bench, Hines went to the rim to try and force overtime. But he was met by Stith, who swatted the most important of his three blocks to clinch the win.
ECU returns to action Saturday against North Carolina A&T. Tip-off time is set for 5 p.m. at Minges Colisuem.