Against a Northwestern State team that SMU beat 81-35 last season, the Mustangs won just 69-58 in an uninspiring opener Thursday night.
SMU missed 3-pointers and committed fouls to keep Northwestern State in the game for the first half, before extending its lead to double digits in the second.
The Mustangs led 34-29 at halftime, before Jimmy Whitt sparked an 18-6 run to open the second half and put the game out of reach. Whitt played with a frenetic energy on defense and scored 12 second half points. He finished the night with a team-high 19.
SMU’s first half lead was slim, partially because Northwestern State center Ishmael Lane, who totaled 24 points and 13 rebounds on the night. Lane goes up aggressively for dunks and rebounds, and can shoot the jumper. His assertive style of play earned him eight first half free throws.
“He was a tough guard,” Tim Jankovich said. “We just had a little answer for him but we didn’t have the answer for him.”
Receiving the brunt of Lane’s impressive performance was Ethan Chargois. Lane simply outplayed Chargois, backing him down for baskets in the post and getting inside position on him for rebounds. Lane finished with 24 points and 13 rebounds. Chargois finished the night with nine points and nine rebounds.
The primary issue for the Mustangs on offense was their shooting; they took 36 3-pointers and made just nine of them. Jahmal McMurray and Chargois, who are good shooters, combined to go three for 15 from deep, on mostly open looks. Whether it was rust or just an off night, the shooting will improve going forward.
Each freshman on SMU’s roster made his NCAA debut, with DeSoto product Feron Hunt making the greatest impression. Hunt’s stats weren’t eye-popping, but he plays hard, rebounds well, and threw down back-to-back dunks in the second half. Hunt finished the game with six points and seven rebounds. C.J. White and Jahmar Young, SMU’s other freshmen, scored two points each.
Also making their SMU debuts were transfers Nat Dixon and Isiaha Mike, who both started. Dixon, a Chattanooga transfer, was second on the team in points with 13. He plays with constant energy, moving around the floor well on both ends. Mike, a Duquesne transfer, was in foul trouble for much of the night, but hit two 3-pointers. The pieces are still taking shape, but Tim Jankovich feels good about how the new players performed.
“I thought for a first game, they did a lot of good things,” Jankovich said of the fresh additions.
SMU impressed with its overall athleticism. In Hunt, Mike and Dixon, SMU is adding three good athletes to its roster. Hunt’s strength is his vertical athleticism, where he can get up for blocks and rebounds, while Dixon uses his quickness to spring for deflections on defense end and cuts on offense. Mike played relatively passive Thursday, but threw down thunderous dunks at Duquesne.
That athleticism manifested itself on defense, where SMU forced 18 turnovers. The Mustangs played hard and fast, forcing the Demons into mistakes.
“This year we’re playing a little more up-tempo, especially with defense, trying to get out and pressure the ball,” Whitt said. “When you have a lot of athletic guys you can really get out there, pressure teams, make it real difficult for other teams to get comfortable and get in their offense.”
SMU’s effort was another aspect of Thursday night’s outing that projects positively for the future. The Mustangs went all out for loose balls and grabbed 21 offensive rebounds, the team’s most since December of 2015.
“I’m mostly about our effort,” Jankovich said. “I don’t expect us to be solid yet… but if we’re going to have great effort and we’re going to have great unselfishness, we’ve got a chance in the long run to have a heck of a team.”