With Jarrey Foster injured and SMU’s offense in a funk during the first half of Saturday’s 73-62 win over Tulane, the Mustangs needed someone to step up. They were playing flat, and not hitting their shots. The energy level on the court was low, and it was reflected by the home crowd. Someone needed to ignite the Ponies, and get them out of their early slumber.
The Mustangs were coming out of a timeout, down 16-7, when Jimmy Whitt answered the call. First, he hit a jumper and then stole the ball from Tulane’s Caleb Daniels. When play resumed after a media timeout, he slammed down a dunk over a Tulane player. Then he stole the ball on the ensuing Tulane play. But he wasn’t done yet. He garnered two more steals on the next two Tulane possessions, finishing with four steals on four straight possessions, and sparking a mini-run that got SMU and the crowd, back into the game.
Whit finished the night with 18 points, and made nine of his 13 shots. He was a key reason why the Mustangs went into the half up three points.
“I don’t know if I have seen that one in a college game against a team that good,” SMU head coach Tim Jankovich said of Whitt’s stretch of thievery. “Changed the game. Changed the momentum.”
Part of the reason for SMU’s slow start was Foster’s absence. He sprained his knee against Wichita State on Wednesday and was listed as a game-time decision for the game. Ultimately he was held out, which hurt SMU’s flow on the offensive side of the basketball, and forced them to play a zone on defense.
It didn’t help that Shake Milton, widely regarded to be the Mustangs’ best player, was in a funk for most of the game. He only had two points in the first half, and missed his first eight shots of the night. He looked frustrated with both the referees and himself.
“Shake did what I’ve seen a million guys do: have a career night and then the next night just struggle mightily,” Jankovich said.
Tulane was able to take advantage of the zone defense’s weakness – its inability to guard against outside shooting. The Green Wave poured in a barrage of 3-point baskets over the course of the game. At one point in time, the team made half of its 24 attempts before missing its next five down the stretch to finish 12 for 29. Melvin Frazier, a 36.4 percent 3-point shooter, led the way for Tulane, finishing the night with six made threes on eight attempts.
Tulane opened the second half with a small run to take the lead, but the Mustangs were able to recapture it. However, Tulane stuck around, and the Green Wave eventually pulled ahead on a Frazier 3-pointer with just over five minutes left. But Jahmal McMurray scored a layup on the ensuing Mustang possession, and SMU held the lead the rest of the way. Milton was key in SMU’s second half surge. He hit five of eight shots after his slow start, and finished the night with 20 points.
“How great was he down the stretch?” Jankovich said. “He just willed things to happen. What a great competitor.”
Akoy Agau was another bright spot for the Mustangs. He had nine points and six boards in 23 minutes of play. He also made all four of his shot attempts.
“I just told myself that I was going to go out there and play hard and do the little things for the team,” Agau said. “It was a fun, electric game.”
Everett Ray was injured during the team’s pregame warmups. Jankovich said that he thought the injury was an ankle sprain, and did not know how much time, if any, Ray would miss. He also said that Foster was responding well to treatment of his injured knee.
“We are hoping he is back soon,” Jankovich said of Foster. “His spirits are really good. The way he is moving around is really good. We are going to continue to do tests and analyze but I’m fairly optimistic. Fairly.”
The Mustangs move to 14-6 on the season, and are still 2.5 games out of first place in the American Athletic Conference. SMU faces off against UConn next Thursday at the Huskies’ Gampel Pavilion. Tip off is 6 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.