By Phil Mayer
It was an emotional night at Moody Coliseum as seniors Jordan Tolbert, Markus Kennedy and Nic Moore played their final game on their home court. The seniors were all individually introduced to an energetic crowd, andMustang super-fan George W. Bush greeted the starting five before tip-off. SMU rode that energy into the game, coming up with a dominant win over UConn. The Mustangs played great basketball from start to finish, building a lead over the Huskies that grew to 30 points at one point in the game. The final score was 80-54, SMU.
The Mustangs came out of the gate playing stingy defense, as UConn was not able to get on the board until 3 minutes and 15 seconds had passed. Excellent passing fueled the Mustangs’ offensive attack early in the game.Markus Kennedy was able to find Jordan Tolbert for a dunk and a layup from the high post, and Nic Moore found Kennedy himself for a slam on a nice wraparound pass, which happened to be Moore’s 500th career assist.
After a Daniel Hamilton three-pointer for UConn tied the game with about eight minutes left in the first half, SMU finished the first stanza on a mammoth 20-4 run. The Mustangs were firing on all cylinders for that run, hitting their shots on offense and not letting UConn make more than one field goal in the final eight minutes of the half. An and-one jumper by Moore punctuated the hot stretch. The aggressive SMU defense stood out, as they forced ten Husky turnovers, while giving it away just twice themselves. The only area where the Mustangs felt any kind of adversity in the first half was at the free-throw line, where they shot just 2-6. A highlight of the half was seldom-used guard Jonathan Wilfong checking in, much to the delight of the crowd. The final score of the first half was 36-20.
SMU mostly traded buckets with UConn for the first ten minutes of the second half, but they began to pull away with a thrilling sequence of back-to-back alley-oops, including one that Nic Moore threw to Ben Moore from half-court. The Huskies did not put up much of a fight after that sequence, and the Mustangs could cruise to a victory. The final basket of the game was a layup by walk-on senior David Nelson, who was also playing in his last home game.
Sterling Moore led the Mustangs in scoring with 20 points, and earned some high praise from teammate Markus Kennedy. Kennedy said, “If Sterling doesn’t get Most Improved in the Conference something is up.” But this was a team effort; the Mustangs compiled 22 assists, as opposed to only 10 for UConn. Kennedy was the surprising leader in assists, putting up a career high nine. Kennedy admitted that part of the reason for his high assist total was his cold shooting night. He said, “I wasn’t hitting shots; I had no choice but to find teammates.” The Mustangs were able to slow down Husky center Amida Brimah, who exploded for 16 points, 8 rebounds and 5 blocks last time the two teams met. Brimah was able to record just one point and four rebounds tonight.
After the game, coach Larry Brown, Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert gave passionate, moving speeches, thanking the Mustang fans, teammembers and coaching staff for the turnaround of the program. The atmosphere created by the fans this season astounded both Moore and Kennedy. Kennedy said, “When we were first here we could hear somebody have a conversation from this side (of the arena) to the other side… Now y’all are deafening.” After the speeches, the Mustang crowd broke out in an ear-splitting “SMU” chant.
In the post game press conference, Brown expressed his pleasure with how the season has gone. He said, “It’s been an incredible ride… it’s been more than I ever could’ve imagined. You hope for stuff like this.”
Next game, the Mustangs will go into Cincinnati to play a 21-9 Bearcat team that nearly beat them in January. The Mustangs are not taking the game lightly, Moore said, “It’s not a day off… it’s the biggest game of the year.”