By Tommy Smith
UNIVERSITY PARK — The SMU Mustangs advanced to the second round of the National Invitational Tournament Wednesday with a 68-54 victory over UC Irvine at Moody Coliseum. Cannen Cunningham scored 17 points in 20 minutes off the bench to lead the Mustangs to their 24th win of the season. After being snubbed by the selection committee and left out of the NCAA Tournament, head coach Larry Brown and his team began their run for the NIT Championship which culminates at Madison Square Garden April 3rd.
The Mustangs were ranked as high as 18th in both polls March 3rd and had their sights set on returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993. However, three consecutive losses to close out the season left SMU on the bubble of the 68 team NCAA Tournament field. Strength of schedule and a lack of respect for the American Conference led to the Mustangs being the first team left out of the NCAA draw and settling for a number one seed in the NIT.
The Mustangs overcame their disappointment and a sluggish first half to outlast the Anteaters, who came to Dallas as the Big West regular season champions. SMU began the game missing jumpers, layups and free throws. They trailed 7-0 4:13 into the game at the first media timeout. Cunningham made his first appearance off the bench and quickly put SMU on the board with a short jumper.
UC Irvine would lead by eight points twice in the first half. They held the Mustangs to 29.4% (10-34) shooting from the field in the first. Anteater’s center Mamadou Ndiaye, who at 7’6″ is the tallest player in the nation, was a big reason. Ndiaye, a freshman, blocked three shots in the first. He recorded seven of the nine UCI blocks on the night and altered many more shots throughout.
“You can’t practice for 7’6″. In your whole life you can’t do that,” said Cunningham when asked about Ndiaye after the game. “He was intimidating at times but we found a way around him.”
Ndiaye finished the game with seven points and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes to go along with the rejections.
With their shot not falling, the Mustangs relied on good defense and offensive rebounding to remain close in the first half. UC Irvine turned the ball over 12 times in the first and 20 times in the game.
“It was tough, they played well. They came after us, created a lot of offense with their defense which is important for them,” said UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner. “I give them credit for that.”
SMU held the Anteaters scoreless over the last 3:03 of the first. They cut the lead from eight to one and trailed 30-29 at the break. UCI lead 35-29 2:32 into the second half when the Mustangs would take over the game. SMU went on an 11-0 run to take lead 40-35 with 14:46 left in regulation. They outscored UCI by 15 points in the second half to put the game away.
SMU guard Nick Russell scored eight of his 10 points in the second half. Sterling Brown and Ben Moore each had 6 points in the second contributing to the turnaround. As the SMU lead grew bigger the Mustangs defense proved stronger, holding UCI to 23.3% (7-30) shooting in the second. Freshman guard Luke Nelson from England finished the game with 13 points, rebounds and 4 assists for the Anteaters.
The Mustangs now move on to face LSU Monday night at Moody Coliseum, after the Tigers advanced by beating San Francisco 71-63 late Wednesday. With a win, SMU will host a quarterfinal game next week. That games winner will advance to the NIT final four at Madison Square Garden. Brown and the Mustangs are hoping to make that trip instead of the one to the big dance many thought they would.
“We talked about how you’ve seen a lot of teams disappointed, but if you move on all the excitement builds,” said Brown after the game. “To have the opportunity to go to New York, for anybody that loves basketball, to play in the Garden, I think is a wonderful opportunity.”