KINGSTON, R.I. – East Carolina placed five players in double figures but had to hold off a determined UNC Asheville comeback as the Pirates edged the Bulldogs, 81-70 in the fourth round of the NIT Tip-Off Tuesday night at the Ryan Center on the campus of Rhode Island.
Asheville had another starter out with an injury Tuesday night as junior guard Corey Littlejohn missed the game with an ankle injury. Senior center D.J. Cunningham has missed the last two games due to a knee injury. Sophomore forward Will Weeks has missed the last five games with a knee injury.
The Bulldogs (1-6) were led by a career-high 21 points from Sam Hughes. He also grabbed six rebounds. Andrew Rowsey finished with 16 points, 13 in the second half. Jaron Lane added 13 points, while David Robertson made his first career start and contributed 10 points.
Paris Campbell led the 6-1 Pirates with 20 points. Prince Williams contributed 19 points.
Asheville trailed 72-52 with four minutes left after a Campbell trey. The Bulldogs roared back as they scored the next 12 points to close to 72-64 with 1:29 left on a Lane three-pointer. Rowsey scored the first nine points of the comeback with three free throws and back-to-back treys.
The Bulldogs were within 77-70 at the 30-second mark on a Hughes tap-in but the Pirates hit four straight free throws to hold Asheville off.
“I’m really proud of our effort tonight by our team. We have had a lot of adversity, and our focus and effort was outstanding,” stated first-year coach Nick McDevitt. “We needed to play a little better defense as we let East Carolina shoot the ball pretty well. And we needed to shoot the ball a little better. We had some good looks from the three-point line (7-of-31) and just couldn’t get some shots to go down. If we made a few of those shots, it could have gotten really interesting down the stretch.
“We had to play some guys tonight that aren’t used to playing a lot, and everyone who played made a great contribution,” added McDevitt. “Some of our younger guys are getting experience quicker than we hoped. This will help us when we get to Big South Conference play.”
ECU hit four treys in the first nine minutes of the contest to allow the Pirates to take a 23-9 lead. East Carolina eventually led 40-22 late in the first half before Hughes scored on a lay-up and forced a turnover. Lane hit a three-pointer as the buzzer sounded to cut the lead to 40-27.
Asheville shot just 29 percent (9-of-31) from the field in the opening half. The Bulldogs went 3-of-17 from long distance for 17.6 percent. ECU knocked down 48 percent (14-of-29) of its field goal attempts and went 5-of-12 from beyond the arc.
The Blue & White hung around in the second half and wouldn’t allow ECU to go away. Finally the Pirates went on an 8-2 run to lead 72-52 with four minutes left.
ECU had a 47-33 advantage on the boards. The Bulldogs had just eight turnovers and outscored the Pirates 16-6 off turnovers.
UNC Asheville returns to action Sunday night at another Conference USA foe as the Bulldogs play at Charlotte starting at 6 p.m. The 49ers (5-1) just won the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament by defeating Michigan in the championship game on Sunday.
UNC Asheville is 1-6 for the second straight year. The Bulldogs recovered last season to finish with a 16-16 overall record.
Jaron Lane scored in double figures for the third straight game.
Freshman guard David Robertson made his first career start and had a tough night shooting from long-range as he went 0-for-8. However, he went 4-of-5 from two-point territory. He added four assists, had just one turnover and two steals.
Chudier Pal played a career-high 18 minutes and collected a career-best eight rebounds along with six points.
Red-shirt freshman Alex Biggerstaff played a career-high 21 minutes. He had two assists and grabbed three rebounds.
Due to injuries, Asheville had its third different line-up in the last three games. The Bulldogs went with an all freshmen backcourt in Andrew Rowsey and David Robertson. Jaleel Roberts started at center, while Jaron Lane and Sam Hughes started at the forward spots.
Sam Hughes scored a career-high 21 points. He has scored in double figures in three of the last four games.