Rally comes up short as Mustangs fall at Cincinnati, 66-64

Down two with 17 seconds remaining in the game, SMU’s Sterling Brown rebounded a missed jumper from Cincinnati guard Jacob Evans. With the shot clock already off, Brown pushed the ball down the court, head faked his defender, and let a three-pointer go for the lead. The ball bounced off the right iron, bounced off the back iron and fell out. Ben Moore’s put-back layup also rimmed out. Cincinnati rebound, ballgame.

A missed three-pointer that left fans of both teams wondering how the ball did not go in – that is a heartbreaking way to lose a game. Especially considering SMU battled back from a first half deficit as large as 15. The late rally was not enough to give the Mustangs their first win in a building the program has gone winless, falling to 22nd ranked Cincinnati 66-64.

Given that SMU was playing in a hostile environment with an undersized seven-man rotation, a two-point defeat at the hands of the conference’s best team is not a bad loss. Far from it. SMU’s ability to tighten up on both ends of the floor and hit some tough shots should be given credit.

That being said, the Mustangs’ comeback effort at Fifth Third Arena is one that SMU fans should take with a grain of salt. A lackluster first half performance by the Mustangs created a hole that was too big to climb out of.

SMU head coach Tim Jankovich said following the Mustangs’ victory over Temple on Jan. 4 that his team would defend according to percentages. That was apparent Thursday night in Cincinnati, with SMU much more interested and invested in defending the paint. Against a Bearcats squad that struggled hitting shots from deep earlier in the season, the Mustangs seemed to have a solid gameplan.

Jankovich would have gotten away with it too if Cincinnati would not have caught fire from three-point range. With SMU fading off the Bearcats on the perimeter, Cincinnati’s lethal shooting carousel went to work hitting one lackadaisically defended three after another. The Mustangs failed to adjust, allowing the Bearcats to shoot half of their shots from deep in the first half, sinking 50 percent of them (7-for-14). Cincinnati would go on to shoot 46 percent (12-for-26) from deep on the night. The Bearcats’ three-point barrage not only snapped SMU’s 10-game winning streak, but also the Mustangs’ streak of holding opponents to less than 65 points.

SMU also made the game hard for itself on the offensive end. The Mustangs allowed Cincinnati’s press on the point guard to force many short, unproductive possessions. SMU struggled to penetrate against the Cincinnati zone, scoring only four more points in the paint than the Bearcats despite winning the offensive rebounding margin by nine (13-4). If not for some impressive individual performances, SMU would not have been in the game late.

In his final chance to earn an illusive road win over the Bearcats, Sterling Brown did all he could to power SMU to a comeback win. The senior guard led the Mustangs with 20 points, 10 rebounds and three steals – his 4th double-double of the season. Brown shot 67 percent from the field (8-for-12) and from deep (4-for-6). The memory of that final missed three might sting for awhile.

Senior forward Ben Moore also recorded his 4th double-double of the season, finishing with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Shake Milton also finished in double figures with 13 points.

Forward Semi Ojeleye and guard Jarrey Foster were more absent than normal after shooting a combined 0-for-7 from the field in the first half. Ojeleye would finish with 12 and Foster with eight, but Cincinnati’s strong defensive effort around the rim noticeably impacted their production.

Cincinnati becomes the only remaining undefeated team in American Athletic Conference play with the win over SMU. The Bearcats lead SMU and Houston by a half game in the current standings.

In a game that matched the two best teams in the AAC, Cincinnati literally needed a home roll to win. With the margin between the Bearcats and Mustangs closer than anyone expected, the Feb. 12 rematch in Dallas is sure to have everyone’s attention.

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