GREENVILLE, N.C. One can see the positives in the Charlotte 49ers’ 75-68 Conference USA loss against East Carolina at Minges Coliseum on Thursday.
The 49ers (5-9, 14-13) lost their sixth consecutive game because they fell behind by 19 points before the game was 10 minutes old. Turnovers and lax 3-point defense made it appear Charlotte wasn’t ready to play or, worse, didn’t care what happened.
However, Charlotte showed a surprising amount of grit and life in rallying from that huge early deficit, tying the game three times in the second half only to fall short in the final minutes.
But the rally wasn’t enough. With guard Akeem Richmond (8-of-14 3-pointers for 27 points) doing most of the damage, East Carolina (16-13, 5-9) had just enough to keep Charlotte at bay.
“It just shows that we want to have it, we have it,” 49ers guard Ben Cherry said. “You can take that however you want. When we decide to play hard and put the pedal to the metal, we can we stay with anybody. If we go through the motions, anybody can beat us.”
The game was nearly finished before the 10-minute mark. With East Carolina blazing hot from 3-point range (12-for-27 for the game) and Charlotte making matters worse by turning the ball over eight times during that span, the Pirates jumped to a 21-2 lead.
“The guys might have gotten a little shell-shocked,” 49ers coach Alan Major said. “They got a little heavy-legged and the (rim) starts to look better to the other guys. Once we shook off the tweetie birds a little, it got better.”
In a departure from most of the other games during this losing streak, the 49ers began to play smarter and more efficiently. With point guard Pierria Henry (20 points) penetrating into the lane almost at will, Charlotte began to chip away at the lead. A 6-0 run in the final 2 minutes of the first half cut the Pirates lead to 32-24 at halftime.
We got off to a terrific start,” said Pirates coach Jeff Lebo, whose team lost its first six conference games but has gone 5-3 since. “But we never got comfortable.”
The 49ers tied it three times in the second half, 50-50 on a layup by Willie Clayton, then 52-52 on a fastbreak layup by Shawn Lester and 54-54 on a dunk by center Mike Thorne with 7 minutes, 18 seconds left.
Each time, however, East Carolina responded. Henry got inside to cut another Pirates lead to 61-60 with 3:53 left. But Richmond, C-USA’s leading 3-point shooter, hit from long range to put the Pirates up by four. The 49ers couldn’t overcome that one.
Richmond, who entered the game leading the nation in 3-pointers attempted (322), came out of the game to a standing ovation with 18 seconds remaining. He was replaced by little-used Francis Edosomwan, a Charlotte Christian grad who got to play a few seconds against his hometown team.
“You don’t want to be in the position we were in,” Major said of the early deficit. “But I like the fact that the guys never dropped their heads in the huddle. The two words I kept hearing were, ‘Keep playing.’ Yeah, they got a hot start, but we kept defending, got a couple of buckets. The guys understand it’s a long game.”
It’s also a long losing streak.
“Everybody wants to fight, but you can’t dig yourself that big a hole,” Cherry said. “And we’ve done it a lot.”
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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