DALLAS, Texas -- The No. 15 Southern Methodist Mustangs erased a seven-point deficit in the last four minutes to keep their hopes of perfect season alive in a 59-57 American Athletic Conference win over the Cincinnati Bearcats at Moody Coliseum on Thursday.
SMU (14-0, 3-0 AAC) remains one of two undefeated teams in the country, along with South Carolina (14-0). And the Mustangs won with just six scholarship players in the second half after guard Sterling Brown was ejected for leaving the sideline during an on-court altercation.
SMU is barred from postseason play because of NCAA violations and instead has made it a goal to go undefeated. Beating Cincinnati, and in improbable fashion, cleared a major hurdle toward that goal.
"I told the kids, I've been in a lot of locker rooms," SMU's Hall of Fame coach, Larry Brown, said. "I've always had really good effort (from players) but this group, this win, it's kind of unbelievable."
The Mustangs trailed 55-48 with 4:05 left but fought back with a pair of 3-pointers by point guard Nic Moore, the last one giving SMU a 56-55 lead with 1:15 to play.
After Cincinnati answered with two free throws by forward Octavius Ellis, a tip-in by forward Jordan Tolbert put SMU back ahead 58-57 with 28 seconds remaining.
"The tip-in cost us the game," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "We're up one and we get a defensive rebound with 30 seconds left, the game would be over."
Tolbert then swatted a shot on a drive by Cincinnati guard Troy Caupain with 10 seconds left. SMU forward Ben Moore added a free throw with eight seconds remaining to give the Mustangs a two-point cushion, and Cincinnati guard Farad Cobb's 3-point attempt just before the buzzer bounced off the rim.
"Troy was supposed to drive the ball all the way to the basket but he passed it," said Cobb, who led Cincinnati with 18 points, including six 3-pointers. "I knew how much time was left so I just took a shot, but I was the decoy on that play."
Ben Moore led SMU with 15 points and Nic Moore scored 14 as the Mustangs improved to 3-0 in the AAC.
The comeback was sparked during a timeout with 3:40 left. As SMU players gathered on the court, waiting for the game to resume, the crowd of 6,971 began to spontaneously roar. They remained at a deafening volume the rest of the way.
"It gives you the goosebumps," Nic Moore said.
Cincinnati won both meetings last year and was 3-1 against SMU since both began playing in the AAC.
"I told the fellas, they've had our number since me and (fellow senior) Nic got here," said forward Markus Kennedy, who had not practiced after re-injuring his ankle earlier in the week. "We really needed this one, it's as simple as that."
SMU began the game with just seven scholarship players because of injuries, defections and red-shirting. The Mustangs were even more short-handed when Brown was ejected with 7:11 left in the first half.
Brown was tossed for coming onto the court during a scuffle under the basket. Brown was at the scorer's table waiting to check in when the tussle broke. He walked onto the court but did not join the fray.
That's our mistake," Larry Brown said. "We went over it that you're not allowed to leave the bench, but he's checking in so it's a normal reaction. But they (Cincinnati) were disciplined enough not to leave the bench."
Tolbert and Cincinnati center Coreontae DeBerry were assessed technicals after officials reviewed the incident.
The game was tied at 21 at the time of the incident and Cincinnati took a slim 32-30 lead into halftime.
Neither team led by more than four points in a tight first half that saw six lead changes.
For Cincinnati (11-5, 1-2) it was a missed opportunity to get a key conference win on the road.
"There was a time I was 65-1 with the lead in the last two minutes of games, so it's beyond frustrating," Cronin said. "I think we lack a closer on offense and that hurt us."
After the game, Larry Brown sent all seven scholarship players to the media room to be interviewed.
"It just shows the character and the fight in everybody we have," Nic Moore said. "Even though we played with six, you can get the job done."
NOTES: SMU had 10 players in uniform with the addition of two practice players, G Jake Brudish and G David Nelson, to the roster. The departure of G Keith Frazier last weekend left the Mustangs with seven scholarship players. ... Cincinnati dropped out of the Top 25 polls for the first time since Nov. 16 after losing at home to Temple, 77-70, last week. The Bearcats were ranked for six straight weeks with a high of No. 17 in both polls on Nov. 30. ... SMU freshman G Shake Milton was named American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Week after averaging 16.5 point and 3.0 assists in two wins last week, including a 24-point effort at Tulsa.