Strong Second-Half Steers ECU Past Rattlers

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU (6-6) outscored the visiting Rattlers (0-11) 48-28 in the second half on its way to a 75-57 victory at Minges Coliseum Sunday.

A bounceback home victory against winless Florida A&M of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference was not a predetermined early Christmas gift for the East Carolina men’s basketball team.

The Rattlers made the Pirates earn everything they got at Minges Coliseum Monday night and held the lead for much of the first 25 minutes of the game. Dissatisfied with his half-court defense, fifth-year ECU coach Jeff Lebo then applied full-court pressure, which led to steals on four of the next five FAMU possessions and an 11-0 run for the Pirates.

And although A&M would respond to trim the deficit as small as a point, its 18 turnovers were too much to overcome. Behind 12 steals and 29 points off turnovers, ECU pulled away in the second half — outscoring the Rattlers 48-28 — on its way to a 75-57 win.

“I commend our team on having some energy in the second half. We were dead in there in the first half,” said Lebo. “In the second half, the press got us going. We got some turnovers. Points off turnovers were big in this game.”

After a pedestrian performance at UNC Wilmington Saturday and just a two-point output in the first half, sophomore Caleb White drained a quartet of shots from 3-point range in the final 20 minutes to lead the Pirates (6-6) with 19 points. His classmate, forward Michel Nzege, provided energy with 14 points and a team-best six rebounds.

Early on, the Pirates struggled to find a rhythm — falling behind 7-2 — playing in a slower pace then they were accustomed to due to the Rattlers (0-11) coming out in a zone defense.

Displeased with his starters, Lebo replaced them just over two minutes into the game with five fresh players off the bench. In his post-game press conference, he joked that he did it because he saw the nation’s top team, Kentucky, do it successfully with its “platoon system” and he liked the way it looked.

“I hadn’t done one of those since maybe my Tennessee Tech days and we used to do that at North Carolina,” Lebo said. “Our starters were not very good, so I thought when I subbed all five of them out, that next five actually played pretty good.”

Immediately after the switch, forward Kanu Aja hit a layup, which was soon followed by a go-ahead 3-pointer by freshman Lance Tejada, and moments later, B.J. Tyson hit a running shot on the baseline — while drawing contact — to cap a quick 8-1 ECU run.

It wasn’t long until ECU’s lead grew to double digits, 24-14, on another basket by Tyson, who finished with 11 points. But just as the Pirates became comfortable, their momentum ceased to a screeching halt.

A&M scored the next 12 points and closed the first half on a 15-3 run to go into the visiting locker room leading 29-27.

“I think every team that’s facing adversity is always hungry,” Nzege said of the winless Rattlers. “These guys definitely came to play and try to get a win, so we couldn’t take them lightly.”

Trailing 40-38 with just over 16 minutes remaining in the game, the Pirates surprised the Rattlers with backcourt pressure and were immediately rewarded by forcing several turnovers. Nzege capitalized on the extra possessions by scoring the game’s next six points, culminating with an emphatic one-handed jam that was set up by his own steal.

Once the advantage was built to 49-40, the Rattlers tried to stage another rally — reeling off seven unanswered points with junior guard Jermaine Ruttley scoring five of his team-best 16 points to trim the lead down to 49-47 — but the Pirates matched the run with an 11-2 spurt to put the game away.

ECU players will have the next two days off to spend the Christmas holiday with their families. The Pirates are set to close their non-conference slate with a home game against UNC Greensboro next Sunday afternoon.

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