DALLAS (AP) – The SMU Mustangs won their first home game as a ranked team in almost 30 years, and they are gearing up for a return to the NCAA tournament after a 21-year absence.
That’s why coach Larry Brown and his players weren’t exactly thrilled with a 70-55 win over Central Florida on Saturday.
“This ranking doesn’t mean anything to me right now,” Brown said. “I’m proud of the fact that we’re in the top 25 in a lot of people’s eyes, but we’ve got a lot of things ahead of us and a lot of great opportunities. And we’ve got to do better than we did today.”
Markus Kennedy had 18 points and eight rebounds and Nic Moore scored 11 of his 13 in the second half as the No. 23 Mustangs (23-6, 12-4 American Athletic) improved to 15-0 at home.
The last nine home wins have come at newly renovated Moody Coliseum, going into SMU’s final home game Wednesday night against seventh-ranked Louisville. The Cardinals lost to No. 21 Memphis 72-66 on Saturday.
The Mustangs expected to go into their big home finale with a more convincing win, particularly considering they ran out to an 18-4 lead. UCF (11-16, 3-13) was still within nine in the final 7 minutes three days after wiping out a 15-point deficit in a win over Rutgers.
“It’s March you know,” said SMU’s Nick Russell, who scored 10 points in less than 9 minutes to start the game and finished with 15. “So we should have things down pat. It should be like clockwork and that’s why it’s a letdown.”
Moore, who also had game highs with six assists and four steals, had consecutive 3-pointers for a 45-27 lead with 13:53 remaining, pumping his arms wildly as he stomped up the court with a loud roar from the sixth sellout crowd since Moody reopened in January.
“Nic Moore made the difference,” UCF coach Donnie Jones said. “His two big 3s were huge. Obviously Markus Kennedy and him are a mismatch for a lot of teams. You can play out of the post of you can play out of the perimeter.”
Isaiah Sykes matched Kennedy with 18 points to lead the Knights.
The win came in SMU’s first home game as a ranked team since March 9, 1985, when the Mustangs lost to Arkansas 68-55. Their last home win as a ranked team was a day before that loss.
The Mustangs entered the rankings three weeks ago for the first time since the 1984-85 season but dropped out the next week after a loss at South Florida, which started the day tied with UCF for second-to-last in the AAC.
SMU returned to the poll after beating then-No. 21 Connecticut last weekend to improve to 4-1 against ranked teams, and there was never much doubt that the Mustangs would avoid another bad loss on Saturday.
Instead, they won for the 12th time in the past 14 games, even though they weren’t very happy about it because now they’re preparing for a return to the NCAAs, where they last played in a first-round loss to BYU in 1993.
SMU’s last NCAA tournament win was in 1988, the year Brown won the title with Kansas.
“We didn’t play like a ranked team,” Brown said. “Took bad shots. Defensively we tried to turn it on and turn it off and you can’t do that.”
UCF cut its deficit to 10 with a 9-1 run capped by a layup from Sykes but never could get closer than nine in the last 7 minutes.
UCF shot less than 20 percent for most of the first half before warming up and getting within 25-21 on a 3-pointer by Kasey Wilson, who had a chance to make it a one-point game but missed from beyond the arc at the top of the key.
“We just hung around and we could never make that separation,” Jones said. “We just had a hard time really getting stops down the stretch.”
Cannen Cunningham and Ryan Manuel, a pair of backups averaging five points per game, combined to score SMU’s last nine points of the half and rebuild the lead to 11.
Cunningham had the first five points, including a three-point play after he ended up with the ball at the end of a wild scramble. Manuel, who finished with 10 points, hit two free throws and a jumper.
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