The SMU Mustangs men’s Basketball team (23-6, 12-4 in American Athletic Conference) doesn’t need much more to solidify itself as a lock to get in the NCAA tournament later this month, but a loss against lowly UCF Saturday afternoon might have kept the team out.
In front of a soldout Moody Coliseum, the Mustangs did not allow that to happen, defeating the Knights 70-55 on the back of their stifling defense and big shots by the team’s playmakers.
Early in the second half, neither team was able to get off to a hot start, until sophomore Nic Moore sent the already raucous crowd into a frenzy with back-to-back threes that extended the lead to 45-27 with less than 14 minutes to play.
“I liked him,” said Head Coach Larry Brown about his point guard’s game. “He played the way he always plays. He competes.”
Much of the game was still a battle for the No. 23 team in the nation, who was able to hold UCF to 37.5 percent shooting for the game, including 4-of-19 from beyond the three-point line, but had its own shot problems in the second half.
“We just hung around, but we could never get that separation,” UCF Head Coach Donnie Jones said. “Nic Moore made the difference with two threes he hit.”
Despite Moore’s short outburst in the middle of the frame, the team’s leading scorer was held to just four field goals on 11 total shots, but was picked up by the game’s high-scorer, forward Markus Kennedy and his 18 points.
In all, four Mustangs reached double-digit scores while only two Knights did the same, including UCF’s season leader in points, rebounds and assists, guard
“He adds a presence offensively,” said SMU senior guard Nick Russell about the man who finished with 18 for the Knights.
Sykes was able to get his shots to fall in the second half, going a perfect 5-for-5, but was held in check in the first 20 minutes of action, converting just 22 percent of his attempts then.
The first half was a bit of an up-and-down affair for the Mustangs.
After building its lead to as much as 14 after nine minutes of play, SMU began to allow the Knights back in the game with sloppy shots and fouls. Both Moore and Kennedy were taken out of the game early with a pair of fouls for each.
UCF got the score as close as 25-21 after a three-pointer by Kasey Wilson with 4:07 remaining in the half, but SMU settled itself and finished the half strong.
Led by Russell’s 10, the Mustangs went on a 9-2 run to finish the first 20 minutes, aided by a Cannen Cunningham 3-point play with 2:17 to go that epitomized SMU’s hustle in the first half.
Despite falling to the ground, Sykes was able to recover and steal the ball from Cunningham before coughing it up himself, leading to the SMU center’s run with a 34-23 halftime lead.
The play epitomized much of the hustle that the Mustangs put on display in order to grab their 70-55 victory, but will need much more in every facet in order to upset the defending national champions at Moody Wednesday.
A win against Louisville may prove to be more than a landmark victory for a program on the rise. It could possibly be the stepping stone for a serious run at the final four.