WILMINGTON, N.C. – Take the foot off the gas and pump the breaks.
The high-scoring East Tennessee State (2-1), met the up-tempo UNC Wilmington (3-0) on Sunday in a match up that figured to be a high-octane, offensive game. But the story ended up being the Seahawks full-court pressure and half-court defense.
UNCW trailed 6-2 going into the first media timeout before picking up the defensive intensity and taking control of the game with a 19-7 run. During that stretch, UNCW forced ETSU into five turnovers and 21.0 shooting. Seahawk forward Devontae Cacok ignited the crowd with an alley-oop from JaQuel Richmond, followed by a layup forcing the Bucs into a timeout down 21-13.
Their defense would only tighten – taking a 35-23 lead into the half against a team averaging 101.5 points per game.
“We knew that in order to have a chance to win the game that we had to be really good and solid on defensive end and I thought our guys did a great job accepting the challenge,” said head coach Kevin Keatts. “You gotta learn how to win every type of game.”
This was an opportunity for UNCW to show that it can do just that.
The Seahawks extended their lead to 41-23 shortly after the break, but ETSU quickly respond with an 8-0 run. on three-pointer from T.J. Cromer, layup by Desonta Bradford, and another triple by David Burrell.
Neither team shot the ball well from the perimeter as both half-court defenses were sound. The Bucs stayed in the game largely due to activity on the offensive boards leading to 18 second chance points.
With limited depth, UNCW gave CAA preseason POY Chris Flemmings (15 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks) help on the offensive end. Cacok scored a career-high 17 points on 8-9 shooting. Going forward, his presence on both ends gives the Seahawks stability on the interior. His play down low will be critical as Keatts generally uses a four guard lineup, with pick-and-rolls a staple. On the defensive end, Cacok is the main rim protector, and his ability to rebound in traffic, stop dribble penetration and block shots can anchor this defense.
The development of a low post threat in Cacok, Richmond’s ability to attack the paint and a lengthy defense give UNCW other ways to win games when its offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders.
Keatts talked about his team’s growth.
“We’re a good basketball team right now. I told them at the end of the year last year that we’re a very good basketball team, probably a great basketball team, but the difference is when those guys had the lead last year, they knew how to play with the lead. This group, obviously with all the newcomers and it’s early in the season, we’re still learning that.”
C.J. Bryce chipped in 13 points as one of four Seahawks in double figures. They head to Nashville for an intriguing match up with Middle Tennessee State at the Challenge in the Music City on Nov. 25.
ETSU faces Milwaukee at the Sanford Pentagon Showcase Nov. 25. in Sioux Falls.