ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — It has been a difficult season for Southern Methodist University’s basketball team, but the Mustangs managed to prolong it for at least another day after defeating the University of Connecticut 80-73 in the first round of the American Athletic Conference tournament.
The Mustangs got 23 points from Ben Emelogu, 21 from Akoy Agau and 19 from Jahmal McMurray, but still needed to make seven of eight free throws in the final 37 seconds to thwart a furious UConn rally.
SMU (17-15) advances to meet top-seeded Cincinnati in today’s quarterfinal game.
“Some teams break, we just bent and that’s what you have to do in March,” Agau said after his team saw a 19-point with six minutes to go, slip to just four in the final minute.
“”I’ve got to give (Connecticut) a lot of credit, they were fighting to the bitter end,” SMU Coach Tim Jankovich said. “They started pressing making the game crazy but our guys handled that very well and hit free throws down the stretch.”
Christian Vital led UConn (14-18) with 24 points, 19 in the second half when the Huskies (14-18) used a 20-5 run to cut their 19-point deficit to four. Antwoine Anderson added 19 for UConn and Terry Larrier had 12.
McMurray hit the last of three straight 3-pointers that helped SMU thwart a 10-0 UConn burst early in the second half that had cut the 19-point halftime deficit to just nine with 16:38 left in the game.
After UConn trimmed the gap to 12, Agau had a dunk, a layup and two free throws to put SMU up 68-49 with six minutes to go.
UConn still wasn’t done. The Huskies full-court pressure created enough turnovers to give them one last chance when Vital hit a 3-pointer to make it 73-69 with 41.6 seconds to go.
However, SMU made seven of eight free throws in the final 37 seconds to seal the win.
“This season hasn’t gone the way we wanted so this is our last opportunity to make a push for March Madness,” Emelogu said.
SMU: The Mustangs got a taste of high-pressure defense from UConn in the second half and they’ll need to handle it a little better today against No. 1 seed Cincinnati. The Bearcats were second in the country in points allowed and field goal percentage defense. SMU will need another stellar shooting performance from McMurray and Emelogu to keep up with Bearcats.
UConn: An up-and-down season ended on a down note for the Huskies, who never really got rolling this season. UConn didn’t win consecutive games after a three-game win streak in mid-January. They were 4-11 in their last 15 games. Kevin Ollie has lot of rebuilding to do after his second straight losing season.
OLLIE: “I’LL BE BACK.”
Kevin Ollie is confident he will return as UConn’s head coach, despite his second straight losing season. Ollie, who led the Huskies to a NCAA championship his first season at UConn, but followed a 16-17 season in 2016-2017 with a 14-18 mark this year. Asked if he expected to be back next season, Ollie responded “Yes!” but didn’t elaborate.
Later, he said: “I’ll go through a long evaluation process for myself, my coaching staff and my team. We don’t want to be 14-18. That’s unacceptable and we have to get better in every category. I’m at the top to evaluate myself and how I can get these guys to player better, how I can get my coaching staff to execute better. We’re all in this together.”