GREENVILLE, N.C. – Against a UCF team that has won two of the last three Conference USA Tournament titles and seems to always play its best basketball in late February, East Carolina turned the tables Thursday night, posting arguably its best effort of the campaign in a 65-50 triumph at Minges Coliseum.
With the victory, their third in the last four games which also avenged a 59-53 loss in Orlando earlier this season, the Pirates improve to 9-18 overall and 3-11 in C-USA play while the Knights fall to 12-14 and 7-7. Additionally, ECU pushed its 2011-12 home record to 8-5 - securing its ninth-straight winning season at Minges. The win also keeps UCF winless in seven visits to Greenville.
Junior Shala Hodges scorched the visitors to the tune of 22 points, including a career-best six three-point field goals, and added a 4-for-4 performance at the foul line, three steals, a block and an assist. Senior Chareya Smith increased her double-digit scoring streak to five games by netting 10 points and was the only other Pirate in double figures.
Also filling up the stat sheet was junior Celeste Stewart, who scored six points to go along with a personal best tying six rebounds, six assists and three steals. Although sophomore Kristine Mial failed to reach double figures offensively for the first time in four outings, she contributed in other ways by posting five rebounds, three assists, three steals and a blocked shot. Junior Britny Edwards recorded two of ECU’s five blocks and is now just four away from tying Jean Best for 10th on the program’s single-season top-10 list.
East Carolina did a much better defensive job on the Knights’ key players, limiting forward Erika Jones to just two rebounds after she pulled down 20 in the teams’ first meeting. The Pirates also kept dynamic point guard Aisha Patrick under wraps, allowing her just three first-half points although she eventually ended up with 11 in her 31 minutes of playing time.
ECU fired at a 42-percent clip from the field and limited UCF to a 33-percent showing, but the story continues to be East Carolina’s recent prowess from long distance as the Pirates knocked down 10 of their 20 attempts from beyond the arc. The team has nailed 30 three-point field goals in its last three games and racked up six in Thursday’s first half. ECU also continued its solid showing at the foul line in league play, knocking down 11 of 13 tries for a mark of 85 percent.
The Pirates forced the Knights into 22 turnovers, scoring 27 points off the miscues, and distributed 18 assists on their 22 made baskets. East Carolina also ratcheted up the defensive pressure, grabbing 13 steals – the most for the squad since it plucked 17 against Lafayette on Dec. 29.
UCF started the contest strong, hitting the first two field goals to push in front 4-0, but the Pirates responded in a strong way and produced a 15-2 run which was capped off by an Edwards jumper to make the score 15-6 at the 11:48 mark. Kayli Keough would help the Knights whittle their deficit down to four at 17-13 with two free throws. However, Hodges dropped in back-to-back-to-back three-pointers to give ECU is largest cushion of the first half, 26-13, with four and a half minutes left in the half.
An fall-away trey by Leo Montalvo as the clock ticked down to 1:23 sliced the Pirate lead to single digits at 28-20, but Edwards popped in a mid-range jumper as time expired to afford East Carolina a 10-point advantage heading into the break.
Hodges’ nine points led all scorers in the first 20 minutes while Stewart and Tatiana Chapple corralled three rebounds apiece. Keough would pace the visitors with five rebounds and four points. ECU held UCF to just six field goals and 26-percent shooting to offset a 19-14 margin for the Knights on the glass.
Janesha Ebron stretched the Pirate lead to 32-20 as she put in the first two points of the second stanza via a pair of free throws. Then, after Keough responded with a jumper, Hodges went to work and netted five-straight points to put even more room between the teams.
A layup by Patrick kept UCF within striking distance at 37-24 with 14:27 remaining on the clock and the Knights would continue to push, cutting the East Carolina cushion down to 12 on a Jones jumper. However, as she did all evening, Hodges responded with a big triple, stopping the UCF rally cold and making the score 48-33 at the 11:34 mark. That moment proved to be a decisive one as the Pirates put away the visitors with an 8-2 run which was capped off by two Chareya Smith free throws and extended the ECU lead to 21 points.
The Knights produced one last run to draw within 15 points while holding East Carolina to just two points in the final five minutes of the game, but the Pirates’ advantage was far too much for the visitors to overcome.
Having won three of its last four contests, ECU travels to Huntington Sunday for its final regular season road outing in a matchup with Marshall. Tipoff between the Pirates and Thundering Herd is slated for 1 p.m. at the Cam Henderson Center.