Ring-rust happens to even the best teams. Sometimes a team can struggle to find its footing after a few months off. That is what fans saw from the Mustangs in the first half of their season opener vs. Gardner-Webb on Friday night: a team shaking out their first-game jitters and not playing to their potential.
After a sluggish start, SMU came out of the locker room looking like a completely different team, outscoring the Runnin’ Bulldogs 45-16 in the second half en route to a 72-44 victory.
“I felt we were just so anxious,” SMU head coach Tim Jankovich said during the postgame press conference. “Offensively I thought we were just too excited and we were a little bit scattered and maybe trying a little bit too hard. Basically we didn’t look like ourselves at all from the offensive end.”
SMU turned the ball over 18 times on the night, 10 of which were committed in the first half. The Mustangs shot only 29 percent (7-24) from the field before halftime and relied on three-pointers and free throws to keep the game close.
SMU found difficulty feeding the ball inside and establishing a post presence early. The Mustangs scored only six points in the paint during the first 20 minutes and grabbed only 5 offensive rebounds. SMU’s bigs combined for only eight points in the first half.
“For the defensive end, I thought we did a good job,” Jankovich said. “Had we had a normal first half of offense I think we would have felt pretty good about ourselves.”
Gardner-Webb’s Eric Jamison hit a jumper with 1:28 left in the first half to give the Runnin’ Bulldogs their first and only lead of the game. Down one coming out of the half, the Mustangs soon made it clear they were not anxious anymore.
Shake Milton hit a three-pointer twelve seconds into the half to regain the lead for SMU. By six minutes into the half, that lead had been pushed to double digits.
The Mustangs found their inside rhythm following halftime, scoring 16 points in the paint and 10 second chance points off 11 offensive rebounds. SMU shot 58.6 (17-29) percent from the field in the second half.
Forward Semi Ojeleye, playing in his first game since he transferred from Duke 23 months ago, went off for a career high 26 points and 14 rebounds, his first career double-double. Ojeleye’s 26 points is the most scored by a SMU player in a season opener since Quinton Ross scored 22 vs. TCU in 2002.
Despite having a career-night, Ojeleye was not immune to the nervousness of a season opener, especially considering he had not played a game of basketball since Nov. 30, 2014. Ojeleye shot only 20 percent (1-5) from the field and 25 percent (1-4) from deep in the first half. He also committed five of SMU’s 10 turnovers before halftime. Take away some of those mistakes and rushed shots, and his night could have been even better.
“I think, especially myself going too fast – the moment kind of made us play out of character,” Ojeleye said postgame. “We know how to play, we’ve been playing for years. When the lights come on it’s a little different.”
“If you look at the game, Semi was tremendous,” Jankovich said. “But Semi hadn’t played in forever. I really think he probably felt like he was playing on the moon for the first half, because he just can’t get comfortable – it’s been so long since you’ve been in a real game.”
Ojeleye said it was nice to get the rust off and coach Jankovich is just happy the first game is over.
“Almost every year the scariest game for me is the first one,” Jankovich said. “Because you just haven’t been out there. You just don’t know what to expect. I am thrilled of the second half, the way we responded to a first half that I know for our returners thought was probably very disappointing.”