HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – Nobody will be heading into the NCAA Tournament with more momentum than SMU.
The Mustangs won their 16th straight game on Sunday, taking the American Athletic Conference championship with a 71-56 victory over Cincinnati.
Sterling Brown led the Mustangs with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Tournament MVP Simi Ojeleye added 14 points, Jarrey Foster had 13 and Ben Moore scored 12. It was the second AAC title in three years for SMU (30-4). The Mustangs took the championship in 2015, but missed last year’s postseason under NCAA sanctions.
“Our confidence is very high,” Brown said. “We just go out there and do what we do. We’re gelling on and off the floor and it’s showing. I feel like we’re going to make a good run in the (NCAA) Tournament.”
Jarron Cumberland had 14 points to lead Cincinnati (29-5), which has not won a conference title since capturing the Conference USA crown in 2004.
SMU started the year 4-3, but has reeled off 26 wins in 27 games. They went 17-1 to win the league’s regular-season title, with the only loss coming by two points at Cincinnati in January.
The Mustangs never trailed in this one. They shot 50 percent from the field and made 10 of their 19 shots from 3-point range.
Brown scored six points to spark SMU on a game-opening 11-2 run. A 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer by Ben Emelogu from just inside the midcourt logo gave the Mustangs a 32-23 lead.
“From that, there was no looking back,” said Brown.
It was the lowest scoring first half of the season for the Bearcats.
Cincinnati made just one of its first 15 shots from the field, shot 34 percent for the game and missed 20 of 24 shots from behind the arc.
SMU hit four of its first five 3-point attempts in the second half to extend a nine-point lead to 17 at 48-31.
“We were scrambling around, trying to cause havoc and get steals and deflections in,” said Cincinnati’s Gary Clark, who finished with 10 points and nine rebounds. “They just kept executing.”
SMU: The Mustangs have more wins than any team in program history. They have won six straight AAC Tournament games and were hoping for a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament than the No. 6 they received.
But coach Tim Jankovich said he’s not about to whine.
“They’re just numbers,” he said. “It’s like preseason rankings. They’re just silly numbers.”
Jankovich said he was happy because the team will be playing on Friday and that will mean an extra day of rest after playing in a late conference final.
SMU was seeded fourth in 1957, fifth in 1985 tournament and received a sixth seed in 2015 after winning the AAC Tournament in Hartford.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats will be heading to the NCAA Tournament for a seventh straight time and will be a No. 6 seed in the South. They are one of just seven teams in that position (Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, North Carolina, VCU and Wisconsin).
“We had an unbelievable year and we won 29 games,” coach Mick Cronin said. “SMU won 30 games. But I think that it’s pretty obvious that nobody was really impressed with that.”
GETTING BETTER EACH GAME
The Mustangs advanced to the championship game with a narrow 81-77 win over East Carolina in the quarterfinals and a 70-59 victory over UCF in the semifinals. Ojeleye said the team got better as the tournament progressed.
“We just had to take our time to get our rhythm,” he said. “Our chemistry is as high as any team in the country. It was only a matter of time until we hit our stride in tournament play, so I guess we just needed a little time to get it together.”
Cincinnati was the 19th of SMU’s 34 opponents to shoot 40 percent or worse this season. The Mustangs have held 24 of its last 27 opponents to 66 points or fewer.
SMU will open the NCAA Tournament as the sixth seed in the East Region on Friday against the winner of the game between Providence and USC.
Cincinnati also will be a sixth seed. It will open play in the South Region on Friday in Sacramento, California against the winner of the Kansas State/Wake Forest game.
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