In the final half of SMU’s 61-51 loss to 1-seed Cincinnati at Orlando’s Amway Center in the second round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament, the Mustangs started to run out of gas.
Injuries and scholarship reductions forced SMU to employ a seven-man rotation, leaving just two scolarship players on the bench. Now, playing the second game in two days, the Mustangs could only watch as the Cincinnati lead grew and grew in the game’s final minutes.
“We were just trying to catch our breath,” senior guard Ben Emelogu said following his final game in an SMU uniform. “They were just rotating [new players in] and they went on a run. They were pounding the ball inside and getting offensive boards, and we just couldn’t find the energy to keep them off of the boards.”
So SMU’s season came to an end in a barrage of offensive rebounds and inside shots. In a barrage of personal fouls and free throws.
In the first half the Mustangs hung close, playing well in the face of adversity. Even with Akoy Agau limping his way up and down the court, SMU went into the locker room down just one point.
It could have been much worse. The Mustangs trailed by just one despite three of its key players running into foul trouble; despite a four-minute scoring drought toward the end of the half.
Late in the half, a trend emerged. After outrebounding the Bearcats by an 8-3 margin early in the game, the Mustangs started to struggle on the glass. Cincinnati was able to grab 17 of the half’s final 24 rebounds.
As the game went on, SMU struggled to close out defensive possessions, failing to corral defensive rebounds, which gave the Bearcats plenty of second-chance opportunities.
Tim Jankovich said that running a zone defense, which his team has been employing following injuries to Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster, made it harder for the Mustangs to get offensive rebounds.
“We don’t have the numbers to do that,” Jankovich said.
The Mustangs got hot coming out of the half, embarking on an 11-4 run that saw them build a six-point lead. For a moment, things were looking up. Even Akoy Agau got in on the action, hitting a long three, his second of the game.
When Cincinnati went on a run of its own to take back the lead, it was due to its ability to capitalize on second and third-chance opportunities that provided the springboard. The Bearcats simply took the lead back by playing the type of old-school basketball Mick Cronin’s teams are known for; by banging inside, boxing out, and playing tight, physical defense. Cronin identified Tre Scott and Nysier Brooks as keys to his team’s turnaround. When they entered the game, the tide started to turn.
“They did great on the defensive end,” Cronin said. “And they also were able to score inside against SMU’s zone,”
SMU’s shooters couldn’t buy a basket during the Bearcats’ 10-0 run. The team went nearly five minutes without a point in large part due to Cincinnati’s defensive prowess and rebounding. The tight defense limited the Mustangs to just three shot attempts during that five-minute span.
That run proved to be SMU’s downfall. It was as if the six-point deficit caused the Bearcats to wake up. Suddenly, they took charge of the game, dictating its tempo and forcing SMU to try and beat Cincinnati at its own game. The ball started rolling, and it just wasn’t going to stop.
“They just grinded it out,” Emelogu said. “They found a way to win. That’s what good teams do.”
Seniors Emelogu and Agau finished the night with 11 points and eight points respectively. Jahmal McMurray led all SMU scorers with 17 points.
SMU finishes the season at 17-16 (6-12). Its season is likely over. According to Adam Grosbard of the Dallas Morning News, the team will not accept an invite to either the College Basketball Invitational or the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
The Mustangs’ only hope is to secure a bid to the National Invitational Tournament –which would be an unlikely development. The tournament will announce its field at 7:30 p.m.