SMU survives scare, beats UMBC

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Shake Milton drives to the rim against UMBC. Photo credit: Getty Images

Moody Coliseum was rattled when Tim Jankovich called a timeout with 2:49 remaining in the first half. UMBC guard Jourdan Grant had just made a layup, increasing the underdog Retrievers’ unexpected lead to 40-30. Jankovich’s message to the team at that point was simple: it’s a long game.

The Mustangs took his advice to heart, staying calm and chipping away at the lead, before eventually pulling ahead late in the game and winning 78-67.

Shake Milton paced SMU with 28 points. The preseason AAC Player of the Year knocked down jump shots, got to the free throw line and guarded UMBC’s best scorer down the stretch in SMU’s comeback. With last year’s superstars Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown and Ben Moore now playing professionally, the pressure to get late-game baskets falls on junior guard Shake Milton’s shoulders.

“Early in the season when there are three guys coming back, four freshmen and a guy who hadn’t played, of course we’re gonna rely on him to have a lot more opportunities to shoot the ball,” Jankovich said.

SMU started the game well. Transfer guard Jimmy Whitt blew past a defender for a layup on the game’s first possession, and freshman Ethan Chargois scored on the next two.

SMU held a 9-0 lead to begin the game. It looked like the Mustangs were going to pull away before UMBC went on a 40-21 run to go up 10. At halftime, the Retrievers led 45-38.

SMU grabbed the lead back late in the second half when Ben Emelogu sank a 3-pointer with 4:43 remaining. From there, the Mustangs cruised; they shot free throws to finish the game on a 17-4 run.

A major reason for SMU’s struggles in the first half was fouling. The Mustangs committed a whopping 14 fouls in the period, and starters Ben Emelogu and Jimmy Whitt were forced to sit out much of the half due to foul trouble. The referees blew a tight whistle, and players on both sides were visibly irritated with some of the calls.

“It’s kind of frustrating because it’s hard to play basketball when they’re calling ticky-tack fouls like that,” SMU guard Jarrey Foster said.

SMU’s defense settled in in the second half, committing just eight fouls and holding the Retrievers to 22 points. The Mustangs were not giving UMBC shooters space to get off shots and forced the Retrievers to go deep into the shot clock before attempting difficult shots.

“In the second half, it’s totally different defensively,” Foster said. “We locked in defensively, and that changed the game and turned it around.”

After transferring from Arkansas, guard Jimmy Whitt redshirted last season before making his anticipated SMU debut this season. Whitt only attempted three shots but had a solid game, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out seven assists to accompany his eight points. He also played a key role in SMU stepping up its defense in the second half.

“I felt great for him,” Milton said. “I know he’s put in a lot of hard work. I know he’s excited and he’s just eager to get out there. You could tell with the bounce and the type of step he had [that] he was confident and he was ready.”

Despite being listed as a guard on SMU’s roster, Foster was forced to play inside for much of the game. SMU’s Akoy Agau is out with an infection and his absence leaves the Mustangs thin up front. Foster worked hard, grabbing six offensive rebounds and blocking two shots.

Freshman Ethan Chargois started at center for the Mustangs and impressed, scoring 15 points and snaring eight rebounds in his college debut. Chargois displayed a versatile game, making shots outside and inside the arc.

“He can rebound the ball; he can pass the ball; he can shoot the ball,” Jankovich said of the freshman. “His future is extremely bright.”

While the final score was closer than SMU fans had hoped, the contest provided a good test against a pesky team. The Mustangs showed perseverance and grit in digging themselves out from an early hole.

SMU’s next game is Sunday afternoon against Louisiana Monroe.

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