SMU Basketball gets its third win over a ranked opponent as they look towards first appearance in the AP Top 25 since 1984-85
By Tommy Smith
DALLAS — When the SMU Basketball team took the court Saturday night they had a chance to announce their presence as a team to be reckoned with. The Mustangs left little doubt, making their statement in front of another sold out Moody Coliseum crowd that was frothing from the tip. SMU rattled the seventh ranked Cincinnati Bearcats (22-3, 11-1) early and beat them late. The Mustangs put an abrupt end to the Bearcats 15 game winning streak with a convincing 76-55 victory.
SMU (19-5, 8-3) has now beaten three ranked teams in their seven home games at their remodeled home court. SMU improved to 13-0 overall at home this season which began with the team playing at the Curtis Culwell Center. The Mustangs defeated the then 17/15 ranked Connecticut Huskies 74-65 in their American Athletic Conference home opener January 4th, the first game played at Moody this season.The Bearcats had beaten SMU 65-57 in Cincinnati three days prior in this season’s AAC opener for both schools. Saturday’s game looked much different in many ways, as SMU played like the team that entered the game unbeaten in conference play.
“There’s not much to say. They beat us in every facet of the game,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “I think we just got rattled, no question about it. We didn’t show poise.”
The formula for winning was much the same for Head Coach Larry Brown and his Mustangs. Defense, balance and depth have been the keys to Brown’s success in his second year at SMU and all were on display against the Bearcats.
SMU entered the game first in the AAC and second in the nation in opponent’s field goal percentage (36.8%). Cincinnati shot 35.4% for the game, including 16.7% (4-24) from behind the arch. SMU is 17-1 this season when they hold their opponent to under 40% shooting.
Again, it was SMU senior guard, Nick Russell, who had the duty of checking their opponent’s best perimeter player. Saturday that was the AAC’s leading scorer, Sean Kilpatrick (19.7 ppg), who needed 18 shots and 11 free throws to put up a team high 22 points. Kilpatrick entered the game as the AAC Player of the Week, averaging 25.3 points and 6.8 rebounds in Cincinnati’s last four contests. In the Bearcats 63-58 win over #22 Uconn Thursday, Kilpatrick had 26 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists. With Russell defending him most of the night, Kilpatrick went 5-18 from the floor including 3-12 from three-point range. Forward Justin Jackson finished the game with 10 points and 9 rebounds and was the only other Bearcat in double figures.
Russell finished the night with tied for the team high with 15 points. He added three rebounds and three key steals in the win.
Head Coach Larry Brown went to his bench early and often in what was arguably the biggest game for SMU basketball since 1985. SMU forward Markus Kennedy had tied or led the Mustangs in scoring and rebounding in the same game eight times this season. Kennedy had scored double digits in SMU’s the last 14 games. However, two early fouls and a turnover led to Kennedy sitting the last 13:45 of the first half. Brown called upon junior Cannen Cunningham who scored 11 points in 13 minutes off the bench, keeping SMU in the game early.
“The most important thing. Markus got in foul trouble after six minutes and Cannen won the game,” said Brown. “He gave us a chance to stay in the game with Markus on the bench. Markus has been a huge part of our team, so that was the key.”
The Mustangs finished the game with four players in double digits. Forward Ben Moore was a big factor in the second half scoring 13 of his 15 points in 14 minutes, while recording 3 rebounds and making all seven of his free throw attempts in the half. Point guard Nic Moore finished the night with 14 points.
SMU only trailed once when Cincinnati led 2-0 to start the game. Keith Frazier’s three pointer at the buzzer gave SMU a 14 point advantage at the half. The closest Cincinnati would get to making a comeback would be with 10:07 left in the game when two Titus Rubles free throws made the score 48-41. SMU’s largest lead was 24 points with 2:44 left.
After the game, SMU fans stormed the court and at one point lifted Nic Moore in the air. The Mustangs will find themselves raked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1984-85 when they were #20 in the preseason poll.
SMU’s next two games are on the road Thursday at Rutgers and Sunday at Temple. They return home to face Houston February 19th. Expectations have certainly changed for the Mustangs who only recently began answering questions about being a NCAA Tournament team.
“We are trying to get to the top. I think we can do it,” said Cunningham. “Our goal is to win a National Championship this year, which might have sounded crazy a couple of months ago, but I think people are really starting to believe in it.”
The 7,000 fans at Moody Coliseum Saturday night certainly witnessed a team that looked every bit like a tough out for anybody come tournament time.