It hasn’t been an easy season for either of SMU’s two seniors.
Forward Ben Emelogu has been battling a wrist injury all season. It’s affected his shot the most and the way he’s able to follow through. Usually a sharpshooter, Emelogu has been a shell of his former self over the second half of the season, seeing his 3-point percentage drop from over 62 percent to 47.5 percent.
Big man Akoy Agau battled back from an infection in his knee to join the team six games into the season. It’s been a rocky season for him too. He’s struggled to be consistent on the basketball court. A former four-star center, Agau hasn’t always lived up to his potential.
But the stars aligned Thursday afternoon with SMU’s season on the line. When SMU needed them the most, the seniors answered the call.
In what could have been the last game of their college careers, Emelogu put up 23 points, and Agau put up 21. They’ll fight to see another day.
“I don’t want it to end at all,” Emelogu said. “I was thinking about that the whole time heading here.”
Partially because of Emelogu’s effort, his season won’t be coming to an end — at least not yet. The Grand Prairie native hit six of 10 shots, including four of eight from behind the arc. He also grabbed eight boards and played well on defense.
Emelogu’s most important contribution came in the waning moments of the game as UConn pulled to within four points after trailing 42-23 at the half. He was fouled three times in the final 40 seconds of the game. He made five of his six free throw attempts and shot the ball like the pre-injury Emelogu.
“Tonight was the Ben Emelogu, the real one,” SMU head coach Tim Jankovich said. “He could shoot the ball again.”
Agau complemented Emelogu’s effort with what might have been the game of his life. He scored 21 points in 24 minutes, grabbing three rebounds and setting multiple screens in the process. The point total was a career high for him.
Inside, Agau was dominant. He was able to back down the smaller UConn players and get high-percentage shots close to the basket. On one SMU possession, he took a pass inside, pumped fakes and slammed down an emphatic dunk. On another one, he drove to the hoop and made a reverse layup, looking like a big guard in the process. For 20 glorious minutes, it seemed Agau might have realized his full potential.
“I just go out there and just tried to play as hard as I can,” the sixth-year senior said. “Put a headband on, took the knee brace off. Tried to shave around 10 years off.”
Agau and Emelogu both credited their performances to the attitudes they had going into the game. Before it started, they were loose — laughing and joking in the layup line. They were jovial, but they were also serious.
“When we walked into the gym, we were comfortable and we were having fun in warmups,” Emelogu said. “We were focused but relaxed, and that caught on over in the game.”
It wasn’t all positive, however. Late in the game, Akoy injured his ankle when he came down on UConn’s Christian Vital after trying to block a shot. He left the game and limped around on the sideline. By the time the post-game press conference rolled around, he had a pack of ice around it.
“I’ll be fine,” Akoy said. “It’s just a little tweak. I’ll play tomorrow.”
Tweaked ankle or not, SMU will need both Emelogu and Akoy to maintain their level of play if they hope to upset No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats Friday afternoon. The Bearcats’ legs will be fresh. They haven’t played since last Sunday.
That could pose threats for an SMU team that is no doubt beaten up and fatigued going into tomorrow’s game.
Tipoff is at noon ET. The game will air on ESPNU.