SMU was undersized, undermanned and tired against No. 8 Cincinnati. What did the Mustangs have left? Their fighting spirit. And they used all of it against the Bearcats.
SMU built a 38-32 advantage early in the second half, which was predicated on sharing the ball and executing zone defense well.
With 15 minutes left in the game, SMU could not hold on to its lead. The fresh-legged Bearcats used their size to outmuscle SMU inside, using offensive rebound after offensive rebound to bury the Mustangs.
While the loss stings, especially for seniors Ben Emelogu and Akoy Agau, SMU has nothing to be ashamed of. The Mustangs gave it their all, but their all was not quite good enough against a talented Cincinnati team.
“I think we played our hearts out,” Ben Emelogu said. “I think we played hard and I think we left it all out there. They just did what great teams do and they find a way to win.”
Another factor that worked against SMU on Friday was the team’s energy level. SMU and its 2-man bench was coming off of a hard-fought win over UConn the day before. Cincinnati, who played 11 players against the Mustangs, had four days off before the game.
It’s no surprise that SMU could not keep up for the full 40 minutes.
“To play back-to-back with tired bodies and no legs, I felt like we really came out hard,” Jahmal McMurray said.
SMU’s entire season has seemingly been an uphill battle. Jarrey Foster, the team’s second leading scorer and most impactful defender, went down with a partially torn ACL against Wichita State on January 10. Then superstar guard Shake Milton broke his hand, missing the final 11 games of the season. Everett Ray, while just a role player, also went down with a broken ankle.
With those three out, SMU has 33.5 points and 13.3 rebounds per game sitting on the bench. The team went 2-9 since Milton’s injury.
Some subscribe to the “next man up” school of thought, which dictates that a team should not blame injuries as the injured player’s back-up should always be prepared to step in.
With players of Milton and Foster’s caliber taken away from a team that already has three scholarship reductions, there is no place for “next man up.”
“I wish we could have had the team that we started the school year with,” Tim Jankovich said.
17-16 is obviously not the desired result for an SMU team that has made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two years it was eligible to. But like they did in their season finale, the Mustangs played as hard as they could the whole way.
“I just think it shows great character,” Jankovich said of his team’s effort “And that’s why I’m so appreciative that I get to coach young men with outstanding character. Believe me, there’s a lot of coaches not that lucky in the country and I happen to be one of them.”