The biggest Cinderella story in CAA history started with an atypically R-rated rant from East Carolina coach Eddie Payne.
“The practice the day before we went on the trip, I remember going off on them and really getting PO’d,” Payne, now the coach of South Carolina Upstate, said via phone Friday afternoon. “I don’t remember why, but it was an emotional, stinging type of rebuke. I don’t normally do that, and I think I’d be less than honest if I said I did it for effect. I remember I was upset, that we didn’t have a particularly good practice.
“And look what happened.”
What happened was the type of run that gives hope to the Flying Dutchmen and every other team that played in the first round of the CAA Tournament Friday. East Carolina, which finished seventh in the CAA during the 1992-93 regular season with a 4-10 conference mark (and a 10-16 overall record), won three games in as many days to become the lowest-seeded CAA team to win the tournament and the automatic bid.
The Pirates’ NCAA Tournament run was a predictably short one: Saddled with a no. 16 seed, East Carolina fell to eventual national champion North Carolina 85-65. But the loss to the Tar Heels didn’t diminish the magnitude of the Pirates’ accomplishment nor the fondness with which Payne recalls it.
There was little to indicate as the regular season wound down that East Carolina could mount a championship run. The Pirates alternated wins and losses in their final eight games, and their final three victories were by a combined 68 points. But their final four losses were by nine, 10, 13 and 13 points and they lost 11 games overall by nine or more points.
Payne said he believes he simplified the approach for the Pirates, who also benefited from the longer shot clock and the defensive nature of tournament games.
“Towards the end, we changed how we played a little bit—tournament games tend to be tighter, lower-scoring type of games, tempo control type of games, getting good shots, using the clock, all that kind of stuff,” Payne said. “We had a 45-second shot clock. So we kind of ratcheted all that back a little bit and what I think ended up happening was we got better players to [shoot] a higher percentage of our shots. Got a couple breaks and next thing you know we’re playing pretty well and won the thing.”
East Carolina shocked second-seeded Old Dominion in the opener, 73-67, before recording a pair of five-point wins over UNC Wilmington (55-50) in the semifinals and James Madison (54-49) in the title game. The Pirates went 1-5 against those three teams during the regular season and were outscored by 66 points in the process.
East Carolina gained momentum as the weekend went along, but Payne said a relatively stress-free win over UNC Wilmington was the key to the Pirates having enough left in the tank for the championship game. “I think if we had a real tough second game, it would have been much more difficult to win the third game,” Payne said. “You got a chance to put some people on the bench.”
Payne isn’t surprised no one has mustered a similar run in the 16 seasons since, especially now that the bottom eight teams in the league must win four games in four days to win the title.
“This is the only time of the year when teams play three games in a row, and that brings in an ‘X’ factor that doesn’t normally exist,” Payne said. “That’s real, real hard to win four. It’s hard to win three.”