SMU Knocks Off #21 UConn 64-55; Likely Lock Up Tourney Bid

Published: Feb 24, 2014 04:30am EST
By Michael Owen, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Feb 24, 2014 @ 04:30am EST


(STORRS, CT) -- The SMU Mustangs led by 15 points each from Senior Nick Russell and Sophomore leader Nic Moore topped #21 UConn 64-55 Sunday to sweep the season series against their American Athletic Conference foe, likely wrapping up a NCAA At-Large bid in the process.

Sophomore big man and Villanova transfer Markus Kennedy also chipped in 13 points and collected 7 boards in only 25 minutes of play while helping the Mustangs push their record to 22-6 over all and 11-4 in the AAC, good for 3rd place. SMU had already secured a first round bye in the upcoming Conference Tournament, are now pushing to get a higher seed.

At the very least they added a quality road win, against a very tough and ranked opponent in their bid to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993. The Ponies also have wins against #22 Memphis and #7 Cincinnati in AAC play while running their record to 4-1 against ranked opponents, their only loss coming on the road at the hands of reigning NCAA Champ Louisville currently ranked #11/#5 who will visit a sold out Moody Coliseum March 5th the close out SMU's home schedule.

‘‘It’s not about getting to the tournament,’’ Kennedy said after the game. ‘‘It’s about getting a good seed and making a run for it. We've got the Final Four in our city and it should be a home game for us.’’.  For this to happen, the Ponies will need a strong showing at the Conference Tournament next month in Memphis, and they must secure a seed higher than 6 or 7 if they expect to advance.

The Mustangs likely will go as far as their defense will carry them, which can be nothing but a good thing.  They held UConn (21-6, 9-5) to only 16 baskets and just 29.6% shooting from the floor. It was the first time this season the Mustangs held an opponent to under 30% shooting, however it was the 13th time they held an opponent under 35% and the 21st time to hold one under 40%..  SMU who came into the game 2nd in the Nation in Defensive FG% at 37.1% is 19-2 when holding opponents under 40%.

The Huskies’ back court tandem of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier who came into the game averaging 40.1 points per game on 42.6% shooting combined, finished the game with just 15 points each on only 8 for 28 (28.6%) shooting.

‘‘They are a terrific defensive team,’’ Boatright said. ‘‘You can’t beat them off the first option. You've got to go to the second or third options.’’

The Mustangs never trailed. They led 27-25 at halftime, but extended that to 10 points midway through the second half. The Huskies made the game interesting by cutting the lead to 5 to make it 54-49 on a jumper by Napier at 4:39, but Pony Freshman Sterling Brown answered just over a minute later with a 3-pointer spurred by a Kennedy offensive rebound  and a sweet dish from Nic Moore, to push the lead back to 57-49 and SMU never looked back and held on down the stretch.

‘‘We have as good a defensive guard as there is in the country in Nick Russell, and we have some length behind him’’ SMU coach Larry Brown said after the game. ‘‘I thought both teams defended like crazy.’’

Buckets came at a premium as neither team could find the basket early. SMU took the early lead when they finally got on the board at 15:38 off a layup by Kennedy. The teams were a combined 0 for 7 with eight turnovers before that.  It was 7-0 when before Philip Nolan finally got  UConn on the board off a layup more than six minutes into the game.

Kennedy had eight first-half points for the Mustangs.

But SMU never led by more than seven in the first half and UConn tied the game at 25 with under a minute to play. SMU took the lead back on a pair of Kennedy free throws, and scored the first two baskets of the second half.

The Mustangs took the lead to 10 at 44-34, holding the Huskies without a field goal for eight straight minutes sandwiched between two layups from Napier.

SMU, which is seeking its first berth to the NCAA tournament since 1993, beat UConn 74-65 in Dallas January 4th when they re-opened 57 year old Moody Coliseum after a $47 million renovation. The Mustangs also have wins over No. 22 Memphis and No. 7 Cincinnati in conference play. They fell out of the Top 25 after suffering a bad loss last week at Temple. Every expectation should put them back in the top 25 when the AP and USA Today Coaches Polls come out Monday.

‘‘We’re still up and down,’’ Moore said. ‘‘But once we get to that clicking point and we just stay at a high, I feel we can make a big run if we make the NCAA tournament.’’

The Mustangs already have more wins this season than any SMU team since 1999-00. They are now 4-4 in league play on the road and a stellar 7-0 at home vs AAC opponents.

The Mustangs ruined the packed house "good feel" of  Gampel Pavillion as UConn honored the first of its three men’s national championship teams at halftime, putting a plaque on its ‘‘Wall of Honor’’ for the 1999 champs. Former Chicago Bull draftee Khalid El-Amin, the point guard on that team, also was honored with an individual plaque.

The challenges continue for the Ponies  Central Florida comes to Moody next Saturday, but they still have a home  game left with No. 11 Louisville before hitting the road to close out their season at No. 22 Memphis prior to the AAC tournament.

Connecticut also faces a challenging homestretch to their season as they face two ranked teams in its final three regular-season games, hosting No. 7 Cincinnati next Saturday and closing the season at Louisville.

Barring any unforeseen changes, both teams should make the dance.



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