By Richard W. Humphrey
SMU’s men’s basketball team’s losing streak reached three Thursday afternoon in Memphis as they lost to Houston 68-64 in the American Athletic Conference quarter-finals. The adage is that it’s tough to beat a team three times in a season; and the Cougars, who the Mustangs swept in conference play, proved to be tough.
The Mustangs got off to a good start as they scored the first seven points of the game. However, the Cougars rallied back to take a two point lead with about eight minutes until halftime. SMU finished strong though closing the half with a 16-6 run to take a nine-point lead at 38-29 into the locker room.
The Ponies again started strong, extending the lead to 10 points over the first two plus minutes after halftime. The Cougars however weren’t dead. They put together a 16-4 run to take a two point lead at 48-46. UH never trailed again as the run continued to 23-5 giving the Cougars an eight point lead, their largest of the game, with just less than 10 minutes left in the game.
SMU however rallied to be in the game until the final 10 seconds. A Nick Russell free throw with 3:55 left put the Mustangs within two at 61-59, but that was as close as the Mustangs got. The opportunities to win were there. SMU simply didn’t shoot the ball well in the second half, making just five baskets in 20 attempts (25%). They also missed seven free throws, after going 4-4 in the first half.
Cannen Cunningham off the bench led the Ponies with 14 points, 12 of which were scored in the first half. Markus Kennedy with 13 and Nick Russell with 10 also scored in double digits. Keith Frazier scored eight points including a pair of three pointers, the 16th time this year that Frazier has scored at least seven points. Kennedy led the Mustangs and tied Houston’s TaShawn Thomas with nine rebounds.
Nic Moore, the Mustangs’ leading scorer on the season was especially disappointing when it counted. He failed to make a field goal in the game, going 0-9 from the field which included 0-3 from three point land. He also drew a costly technical foul in the second half after the Ponies had fallen behind. He pushed a Houston player that had fouled him. Instead of the Mustangs getting the ball with a chance to cut the Cougars’ lead to two or three, UH made a free throw and a basket to push their lead to eight points.
Four Cougars tallied in double digits led by Jherrod Stiggers with 19 off the UH bench. Stiggers hit five three pointers. L. J. Rose was a perfect 3-3 from behind the arc to put 16 on the board. Thomas and Danuel House scored 14 and 11 respectively. The Cougars shot almost 50% from behind the three-point line (9-19).
Most “bracketologists”, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi consider the Ponies a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Thursday’s loss though adds some vulnerability. UH at 17-15 with Thursday’s win can only receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament by running the table in the AAC Tournament. Two more wins is a tall order for sure, especially since they’ll be facing Louisville Friday night in the semi-finals. However, if the Cougars pull off the miracle, SMU, which finished the season at 23-9 could be even more vulnerable as it is questionable as to whether the selection committee will take six teams from the conference.
The Moody Coliseum doors will open to fans at 4:00 Sunday afternoon. The selection show begins at 5:00 PM (Central) on CBS. There undoubtedly will be a good crowd to support the team. Hopefully, Mustang fans will go home with a smile after watching their team get picked for the Tournament for the first time in 21 years.
* The All-Conference teams were announced Wednesday. Nic Moore made the first team, and Markus Kennedy was named to the second team.
* Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier was named as Player of the Year in the conference. Memphis forward Austin Nichols was named the Freshman of the Year. Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin won the Coach of the Year Award.