HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – Deep in their hearts SMU’s players knew they were already in the NCAA Tournament. But after what happened to them last season, the Mustangs were taking no chances.
Markus Kennedy scored 15 points and the regular-season American Athletic Conference champions held off UConn 62-54 on Sunday to also win the tournament title.
Seeded sixth, they face UCLA on Thursday in Louisville in their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1993. A year ago, they were left out of the field after losing to Houston in the AAC quarterfinals.
“Sunday last year at this time was about as disappointing as it could get based on the body of work these kids did,” said Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. “But fortunately we’ve got another opportunity and didn’t have to get anybody to decide whether we’re worthy or not.”
Yanick Moreira and Nic Moore added 11 points each for the Mustangs (27-6). Ben Moore scored 10 points and Sterling Brown pulled down 12 rebounds.
The defending national champion Huskies fell a game short of winning four times in four days and earning a trip back to the NCAA Tournament.
Rodney Purvis scored a career-high 29 points for UConn (20-14), which became the sixth team to miss the NCAAs after winning the title the previous year since the field expanded to 64 in 1985.
Ryan Boatright, who had been averaging 17 points in the tournament, finished with seven and fouled out with 45 seconds left. He was 1 for 12 from the field.
“I missed a lot of shots that should have been easy knock-down shots for me,” he said.
SMU led by 17 points early in the second half, then survived a UConn rally that cut the lead to five with 3:22 left.
The Mustangs’ fans, hugely outnumbered in UConn’s home arena, began chanting “N-I-T” as the clock wound down, then switched to “S-M-U” as the buzzer sounded.
The tournament title was the first for the Mustangs since the 1988 team won the Southwest Conference.
SMU led by 14 points at halftime and quickly stretched that to 36-19 on a three-point play by Moreira.
Two free throws by Boatright made it 53-48 with 3:22 left. But six free throws from SMU pushed the lead back to nine and put the game out of reach.
“UConn, they have a tradition of coming back and we knew they weren’t going to go down without a fight,” Manuel said. “So, just for us to stand there all of us as a team and get the win, it speaks to the maturity of our team.”
SMU dominated down low, especially in the first half. The Mustangs outrebounded the Huskies 43-30, 14-7 on the offensive end.
UConn’s front line got into foul trouble early. Amida Brimah and Phil Nolan both picked up two in the first 13 minutes. Reserve Rakim Lubin, playing because forward Kentan Facey was out with a concussion, had three.
SMU held UConn to five field goals in the first half. Kennedy had that many by himself, scoring 14 points before halftime.
But SMU’s big men got into foul trouble in the second half, allowing UConn to make its run. Kennedy and Ben Moore both picked up their fourth within a minute of each other midway through the half.
The Mustangs were up by 11 points when Kennedy left the game.
Kennedy, who was voted the league’s top sixth man earlier this week, was honored as the tournament’s most outstanding player. SMU’s bench outscored UConn’s 29-8.
The Huskies beat USF, Cincinnati and Tulsa to make it to the title game. But they are just 1-4 this season against ranked opponents. Their only win came against SMU two weeks ago.
The Mustangs have won nine of 10 with the lone loss in that span on this court to UConn on March 1.
“Nobody else in the country probably had to play a road game for their conference championship,” forward Cannen Cunningham said. “But, we only have neutral games ahead of us.”
UConn: This was the first time the Huskies played a conference tournament on one of their home courts since the 1982 Big East championship was held at the Civic Center, now the XL Center. … The Huskies, who lost in last year’s American final to Louisville, are 7-5 in conference title games. They won the Big East Tournament seven times.
SMU: The Mustangs’ defense was impressive during the tournament and held UConn to 32 percent shooting, 21 percent in the first half. … Brown will be returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1988, when he led Kansas to the national championship. He took UCLA to the tournament twice and Kansas five times before heading to the NBA. He remains the only coach to win an NCAA and NBA title (Detroit Pistons).
UConn coach Kevin Ollie on whether he was concerned his team won’t get geared up to play in the NIT — “Why? You put on a UConn jersey. If you can’t get geared up, then I don’t want you on my team.”
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