East Carolina was content just to return to play after a pause of nearly a month due to COVID-19, but the Pirates would be even happier with a win against Cincinnati on Sunday in Greenville, N.C.
The game will conclude the American Athletic Conference regular season for both teams.
The Pirates (8-9, 2-9 AAC) came off a break that included five postponements on Thursday, however they were unable to overcome an early 13-point deficit in a 64-60 setback to UCF. The defeat was the third in a row for East Carolina.
"Three weeks off, it was very hard to get into a rhythm," East Carolina forward Jayden Gardner said. "They hit us in the mouth early. They're a team that's been playing. They've played in like nine games since we played. They came out with rhythm and confidence. We established ourselves and got back into the game."
Cincinnati (9-10, 7-6) has endured its share of COVID-19 related issues as well. The Bearcats fell to 6-3 since an extended layoff due to protocols after a 78-64 setback to Vanderbilt on Thursday.
That game was added to the schedule Monday because Cincinnati coach John Brannen did not want his team idle since losing to Memphis last Sunday.
He was hoping for a better performance against Vanderbilt but didn't get it.
"We've got to get back to playing really well," Brannen said. "I thought this started in practice with a little lack of discipline this week."
The Bearcats took another blow when Mike Saunders, who had a career-high 19 points vs. Memphis, sustained a leg injury at end of the first half.
"Missing Mike, that really hurt us in the second half," said Brannen, who added he is unsure if Saunders will be available Sunday.
Brannen wants to be careful with Saunders because the Bearcats have clinched the fifth seed and a first-round bye in the conference tournament. They are scheduled to play SMU on Friday.
East Carolina is the No. 11 seed is hoping to get a boost from the 700 students who will be allowed to attend.
"I do think it will help with the students to give it a little better atmosphere," coach Joe Dooley said.
He said his team appreciates not only the support but the chance to play again.
"They should cherish it," he said. "Our guys, I think, are happy to be able to get back out there and have an opportunity to compete again and not finish this thing shut down."
--Field Level Media