DALLAS (AP) – An SMU basketball program that last reached the NCAA Tournament 21 years and three conferences ago took another step in that direction on Tuesday night.
Markus Kennedy scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead SMU to a 70-56 victory over Rutgers. The win was the fourth straight for SMU (15-4, 4-2 American Athletic Conference), whose win total matches last season’s in Larry Brown’s first season as coach.
With the Mustangs standing third in the AAC and receiving votes in the AP poll this season for the first time in a decade, Brown sees a team that’s getting close to ending the school’s NCAA drought.
“We’ve still got a hill to climb, we’ve got some tough games ahead, but it’s right there for us,” said Brown, whose 15-17 Mustangs team last season was his first in eight previous college seasons as a head coach to fail to reach the tournament. “As long as we rebound, defend and share the ball, I think we’ll put ourselves in a good position.”
J.J. Moore led Rutgers (8-11, 2-4) with 15 points and Myles Mack scored 13.
The Mustangs entered the game ranked second in field-goal defense at 35.9 percent. The Scarlet Knights missed 15 of their first 16 shots and went more than nine minutes without a field goal during the first half. Rutgers finished shooting 32.7 percent from the field.
Mack, Rutgers’ leading scorer at 16.7 points going into the game, was held to 2-for-11 shooting while being guarded primarily by Nick Russell.
“He’s been doing it all year,” Kennedy said of Russell. “He’s working like crazy to stop everybody. Everybody who’s supposed to be a team’s leading scorer, he taken it upon himself to lock him down.”
Kennedy made his fifth consecutive start following a knee injury to the Mustangs’ starting center, Yanick Moreira. Kennedy has averaged 15 points in the five games after averaging 10.2 coming off the bench during the first 14 games of the season.
Kennedy is playing his first season after transferring from Villanova. Rutgers associate coach David Cox, who represented head coach Eddie Jordan after the game, remembered Kennedy from his AAU days in the Northeast.
“He’s matured,” Cox said. “You can see he has a different command of the game.”
The Mustangs went into the game averaging 14.7 free throws per game and made 14 of 18 in the opening half alone.
“Their length and athleticism disrupted our offense early in the game,” Cox said. “We couldn’t get into a rhythm. They contested shots at the rim. They contested shots on the perimeter.”
Rutgers’ only lead came on Moore’s 3-pointer. SMU then built a 15-6 lead before Mack broke the Scarlet Knights’ drought with another trey.
SMU extended its advantage to 12 points, 27-15, with 5:46 to play in the half. Rutgers cut the margin to eight with a pair of field goals by Wally Judge before the Mustangs responded and built their lead to 13 in the closing seconds of the half.
The Mustangs extended their advantage to 17 during the second half.
SMU is 10-0 at home this season with only the most recent four games played at 57-year-old Moody Coliseum, which was reopened this month following a $47 million renovation.
The Mustangs’ bench outscored Rutgers’ 32-10, led by Ben Moore’s 12 points.
Tuesday’s game matched two head coaches who met on a college court for the first time after squaring off in the NBA. Brown and Jordan met 19 times as head coaches in pro ball over parts of six seasons, with Brown winning 13 times.
“That’s a very, very good, very deep, very talented and obviously a very well coached team that we expect to be an NCAA Tournament team,” Cox said.
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