MUSTANGS ADVANCE TO AAC FINALS
Ponies Set School Record for Wins
BY: Dic Humphrey
The SMU Men’s basketball team moved into the championship game of the American Athletic Conference post-season tournament with a 70-59 win Saturday over Central Florida. Sterling Brown led the Mustangs scoring attack with 22 points in Hartford, Connecticut’s XL Center as SMU won their 29th game of the season, a new school record. The Mustangs have four losses and are a lock to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Central Florida drops to 21-11 and awaits a call from the NIT.
It was a physical game from the beginning. Both teams are strong defensive units, and both looked tight early. The Knights have 7’-6” Tacko Fall, and he presents problems on both ends of the court. Semi Ojeleye drew the defensive assignment for much of the game, and he admitted afterward, “I’ve never gone up against anything like that before.” On the defensive end, Fall alters opponents’ shots if he doesn’t block them outright, and is a rebounding machine. Offensively, if he gets the ball near the opponents’ basket, he is almost an automatic two points.
The Knights also went zone on the defensive end for much of the first half, which caused SMU difficulty too. Head Coach Tim Jankovich said at halftime that he thought his team created some good shooting opportunities, but simply did not shoot the ball well. The Ponies led for most of the first half, but the lead was just three points at intermission – 26-23.
SMU looked smoother and more assured in the second half. They finally created some scoreboard separation with a 14-3 run that pushed the lead into double digits at 50-36 with nine plus minutes remaining in the game.
At that point, Fall’s talents were largely negated. The Knights needed more three point shooting power and more speed on the court, and Fall sat for most of the balance of the game. Central Florida closed to within five points at one point, but that was as close as they got.
“In the second half, we shot better and played tremendous defense,” Jankovich said. It’s a good formula for winning games.
Sterling Brown was SMU’s player of the game. He played all 40 minutes, scored 22 points, contributed four assists and pulled down six rebounds. His biggest contribution though came on the defensive end of the court, as he guarded Matt Williams, who set the conference record this season by making 109 three point shots. With Brown guarding him, Williams went 1-6 from the three point line and scored just five points.
SMU played just six players in the game. Semi Ojeleye scored 17 and Shake Milton scored 16 to join Brown as double digit scorers. Jarrey Foster led the Mustangs with eight rebounds. The Ponies dished out 15 assists on 21 made baskets with Milton leading the way with five assists. The Mustangs out-rebounded UCF 30-22. It was the 27th time in 33 games that SMU has out-rebounded their opponent.
- J. Taylor was the Knight’s leading scorer with 20 points. Forward Nick Banyard was the only other UCF player in double digits with 16. Fall grabbed seven rebounds to lead the Knights.
The AAC finals are Sunday afternoon at 2:15 Central/3:15 Eastern. It’s fitting that Cincinnati and SMU will meet for the third time this season. They have been the two best teams in the league. The Bearcats beat the Mustangs 66-64 in Cincinnati. SMU won 60-51 in Dallas. SMU is ranked 12th this week in the AP Poll, while Cincinnati is 15th. They are the only two teams from the AAC that will be going to the NCAA Tournament this year, and the game is likely a battle for which gets the best seed. Sunday’s game will be televised on ESPN.
- SMU’s winning streak is up to 15 games. That’s the third longest streak in school history, and is tied for third place for active NCAA winning streaks.
- Semi Ojeleye has scored in double digits in 32 of 33 games this season.