East Carolina had its sights set on a second conference win at the cost of Tulsa’s unbeaten American Athletic Conference record. The Golden Hurricane’s ability to get to the free-throw line proved to be the deciding factor as ECU came up short with a 66-64 loss.
ECU (8-11, 1-5 AAC) was whistled for 23 fouls and Tulsa (14-5, 7-0 AAC) took advantage of the chances at the charity stripe by scoring on 20 of 29 attempts. Foul trouble also cost the Pirates some key players. Marshall Guilmette, Michael Zangari and B.J. Tyson all had to sit after collecting four fouls apiece.
“It was the foul line that was difference in the game,” said head coach Jeff Lebo, pointing out that Tulsa had 29 free-throw attempts to ECU’s 12. “They outscored us by 14 there. We had three more baskets than they did.”
Terry Whisnant led ECU’s offensive effort with 22 points. He was devastating from distance as six of the seven shots he made were from behind the arc. Michel Nzege registered his third double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds. He also dished out five assists.
“I just let the game come to me,” said Nzege. “I’m a team-oriented player. I’m just trying to do all the dirty work. Offense is something that comes easy for everybody… It’s harder to go ahead and get all the rebounds.”
The duo of Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard did a lot of the damage for Tulsa. They combined for 30 points and 10 rebounds. Harrison also had five assists.
Tulsa knew coming into the game that Harrison and Woodard could be counted on. That’s a privilege ECU doesn’t have. A lack of offensive consistency leaves the Pirates without a group of go-to players like Harrison and Woodard.
“We’re trying to figure out who we’re going to go to. They know who they’re going to go to late in games,” said Lebo. “We’re trying to figure that out still. We’ve got to get some consistent play. They know they’re going to get consistent play from their two best players, but they get consistent play from players three through seven. That’s what we need to get.”
Tyson’s performance is a perfect example. He entered the contest as the team’s second-best scoring options behind Whisnant. His five points in 23 minutes on the floor fell short of his 12.8 scoring average.
The Pirates started the afternoon slowly. Just over seven minutes into the game, ECU had only made three of its 14 shots. Despite that, Tulsa only led 11-8 with 12:51 left in the first half.
Whisnant would help ECU take the lead in the last 5:18 of the first half. His three treys accounted for nine of ECU’s 16 points over that stretch. A last-second jumper by Woodard made sure the Pirates only took a six-point lead into the locker room.
The lead didn’t stick for long. Tulsa stormed out in the second half with a 15-4 run in the first 6:16 of the half. Rashad Ray and Woodard each hit a pair of threes to claim a seven-point lead. The Golden Hurricane stayed on top until the final stretch. The Pirates battled back and Whisnant hit a three to tie the game at 57-57 with 5:02 left on the clock.
Marquel Curtis took the lead back for Tulsa with a pair of free throws and a layup. Nzege responded with four consecutive points of his own. He hit a jumper and followed it with a two-handed slam set up by a pretty pass by Antonio Robinson, who led the team with six assists.
Five made free throws later, Tulsa had a five-point lead in the closing moments. Robinson hit a three at the buzzer, but it was too little, too late for the Pirates.
ECU’s next outing is a road match at Memphis. The game is scheduled to tip off at 9 p.m. on Jan. 28.