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No. 24 SMU tops UConn, stays tied for AAC lead

By
Keith Whitmire, The Sports Xchange

DALLAS -- SMU stayed in position to win its second consecutive American Athletic Conference regular-season title thanks to an 80-54 dismantling of Connecticut on Thursday at Moody Coliseum.

No. 24 SMU (25-4, 13-4) is tied with Temple for the AAC lead with one game remaining. Although Temple beat SMU in the teams' only head-to-head meeting, the Owls and Mustangs would be declared co-champions if they remain tied atop the standings.

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The AAC regular-season championship is the only title SMU can play for this season. The Mustangs, barred from postseason play due to NCAA violations, finish their season Sunday at Cincinnati.

Connecticut (20-10, 10-7) saw its NCAA Tournament hopes dim with the loss. The Huskies will likely need to make a strong push in next week's AAC tournament in Orlando, Fla.

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On Thursday, it was SMU that did the pushing almost from the start.

The Mustangs led by 20 less than a minute into the second half after back-to-back layups by Sterling Brown. The guard led SMU with 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting.

Connecticut never got closer than 14 points the rest of the way. SMU's lead grew to 30 on a 3-pointer by point guard Nic Moore with 4:29 to play.

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SMU fueled its runs with defense and scored 18 points off turnovers. The Mustangs also dominated inside by outscoring Connecticut 42-12 in the paint.

"The first half was probably as good as I can remember," SMU coach Larry Brown said. "We beat a team that's pretty athletic, can spread you out and has guys that can make shots. ... All in all, you hold them to 54, that's a great, great game."

Moore scored 16 points and had four assists in his final SMU home game. Fellow SMU senior Jordan Tolbert scored 14.

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Moore, Tolbert, forward Markus Kennedy and walk-on guard David Nelson were honored both before and after the game by the sellout crowd of 7,303 on Senior Night.

Kennedy was overcome with emotion during the pregame ceremony. He recalled being able to count the few fans in the stands when he and Moore sat out the 2012-13 season because of transfer rules.

"I wasn't trying to get emotional, you know, but this place means a lot to me," Kennedy said. "I'm so proud of this team, there's really nothing else to say. I'm speechless right now."

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Guard Sterling Gibbs led the Huskies with 20 points, and guard Daniel Hamilton added 12. Connecticut shot just 34 percent for the game, compared to 51.6 percent for SMU, and committed 17 turnovers.

"They took it to us," Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. "Now we just have to regroup and just try to fight and try to get our seniors out the right way on our Senior Night and play with the emotion SMU played with tonight."

SMU played with so much emotion in its Moody sendoff, the Mustangs may have a hard time matching it Sunday at Cincinnati.

"We already talked about it in the locker room, that (Friday) we're going to come in here and get treatment and see what we've got to do for Cincinnati," Moore said. "This last one is the biggest game this year. We came here last year and won the regular season, and that's what our whole goal was to play for this year."

SMU led 36-20 at halftime after holding UConn to 26 percent shooting (6-of-23) and forcing 10 turnovers.

Hamilton was Connecticut's lone standout in the first half with eight points and five rebounds.

"You know they stepped up and pressured up and we fell back instead of being aggressive ourselves," Ollie said. "If your point guards can't get it up (the floor) and we are committing turnovers, it's hard to get it into our bigs. And our bigs have to roll and demand the ball, and a lot of them weren't doing that. So it was a complete breakdown on offense."

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NOTES: SMU is 50-4 at home since the start of the 2013-14 season. The Mustangs were 16-1 at home this season, losing only to Tulsa. ... Former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush sat courtside. The Bushes are frequent attendees at Moody Coliseum, which is across the street from the Bush presidential library. ... Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and tight end Jason Witten also sat courtside along with SMU alums Margus Hunt (Bengals), Chris Banjo (Packers) and Sterling Moore (Bucs). ... Connecticut finishes the regular season on Sunday when it hosts UCF. ... The Huskies won the season's first meeting with SMU 68-62 on Feb. 18 in Hartford. SMU holds a 6-2 edge in the all-time series.

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