When SMU handed East Carolina a 24-point home loss Jan. 13, the Mustangs had an early 1½ game lead in the American Conference standings. Later that night, they became the lone undefeated team in college basketball when South Carolina lost.
Five weeks later, the two teams met again. This time, SMU needed a win to avoid back-to-back losses and falling a game and a half behind first-place Temple.
The Mustangs (22-4, 10-4 AAC) got that win Sunday afternoon, 74-63, but not without a fight from ECU. The Pirates (10-17, 2-12) made 12 of their 24 three-point attempts, including a 7-for-14 mark in the first half. ECU led by as many as seven points before SMU used an 8-0 run, coupled with a 4:27 Pirates scoring drought, to take a 36-35 halftime lead.
“I didn’t think we had a lot of energy early,” SMU Head Coach Larry Brown said. “That’s how they played us in the past, shooting threes. They happened to be making them.”
Most may overlook SMU’s win as another instance of a conference title contender beating a last-place team. For SMU, the win was an important bounce-back after Thursday’s 68-62 road loss to Connecticut, in which SMU forwards Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert combined for just 11 points on 5-for-17 shooting. The pair scored 31 points and grabbed 21 rebounds on Sunday. Their production helped hold the Pirates to three offensive rebounds and three second-chance points.
“You just have to keep moving forward; next play, next day,” Kennedy said. “I think we did a good job, especially me and [Tolbert].”
The two senior forwards’ performance took a backseat to Nic Moore, who produced another big second half, as he has done so many times in his SMU career. Moore scored 13 of his 22 points in the second stanza, including a trio of three-pointers in a 1:35 stretch that produced some noise from unusually light Moody Coliseum crowd.
“I just look at player of the year and laugh. They don’t even mention him. He’s been as good as any player in the country,” Brown said. “I don’t think any of us want to see it end for him.”
SMU shot higher than 50 percent in both halves and had four players score at least 10 points, including Moore’s game-high 22. He has scored at least 20 points in three of his last four games. He also added seven assists.
ECU shot 55 percent in the first half, but made only 39 percent of its shots and scored 28 points in the second half. Senior guard Prince Williams led the team with 20 points, while freshman forward Kentrell Barkley had 15.
“We knew we had to make at least 10 threes to have a chance,” ECU Head Coach Jeff Lebo said.
But containing Moore proved to be ECU’s biggest problem once again. In four career games against the Pirates, Moore is averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 assists per game.
“Nic Moore, he gives them whatever they need. Whether it’s a three-point shot, a steal, a charge,” Lebo said. “He just makes winning plays. He’s two plays ahead.”
The loss dropped ECU to last place by a full game behind Tulane.
SMU is now a half-game behind Temple, which boasts a 10-3 conference record and plays at Houston Sunday night. SMU would move into a tie for first with an Owls loss. The Mustangs will try to win consecutive games for the first time in 33 days when they play at Memphis at 6 p.m. Thursday night. ESPN2 will televise it.