CINCINNATI -- Banned from postseason play for violating NCAA rules, Southern Methodist University went into Sunday's regular-season finale at Cincinnati with one thing to play for -- a regular-season American Athletic Conference championship.
The Mustangs came out needing help just to claim a co-championship.
Junior guard Troy Caupain scored 14 points and senior center Coreontae DeBerry added 10 as the Bearcats shook off a 1-for-19 3-point shooting effort to hold off No. 24 SMU for a 61-54 upset before a sellout crowd of 13,176 at Fifth Third Arena.
"This whole season has been about not finishing games - not keeping our foot on the pedal," Caupain said. "We had the lead. We had to close it out. Late in the game, coming out of the huddle, our chant was '1-2-3-Finish.'"
"We just wanted to finish the last home game strong," DeBerry added.
Cincinnati (22-9, 12-6) overcame its poor outside shooting by going 24-for-30 on free throws. The Mustangs were limited to 8-for-12 on free throws while setting a season-low for scoring. Their previous season low was the 59 they scored while beating Cincinnati by two at home on Jan. 7.
"Cincinnati didn't foul, at least they weren't called for fouls," SMU coach Larry Brown said. "Anytime you play Cincinnati, they play so hard and if you don't match their energy, you have no chance and we are aware of that. Since I've been at SMU, these are the most fun games. These games with Cincinnati, UConn, Temple, Tulsa, Memphis; those are programs that have some kind of history. It seems that anytime kids put on a Cincinnati jersey, you know they're going to play hard and you've got to match their energy.
"The (SMU) defense was good," Brown added. "We turned it over and just couldn't get to the free throw line. We didn't handle their zone very well. That being said, when they shoot 1-for-19 from three, you don't get a lot of those back, but when our defense was set, we were pretty good. I think most shots were contested, but then again, they made plays when they needed, got to the free throw line 30 times. It's hard to win on the road when you turn it over 17 times and allow 30 free throws."
Senior guard Nic Moore scored a game-high 14 points for SMU (25-5, 13-5). Junior forward Ben Moore added 12 with 10 rebounds for the Mustangs. Senior forward Markus Kennedy scored nine points before fouling out 8:46 left in the game.
"We lost to a really good team in a great environment," Brown said. "We had a heck of a year. Nic and Markus and Jordan (Tolbert) set the bar pretty high for everybody, and we were fortunate to have them. They've got to get their degrees and get ready for whatever lies ahead for them. I think everyone knows the contributions they made and we were fortunate to be around them. I hope this win helps Cincinnati get in the NCAA Tournament. They played a great schedule and do it the right way."
Cincinnati, whose NCAA Tournament hopes were up in the air after losing 69-56 at Houston on Thursday, also enjoyed a 13-2 advantage in points off of turnovers after forcing the Mustangs into 17 while committing only six. That helped the Bearcats weather shooting just 29.5 percent (18-of-61) from the field, coach Mick Cronin said.
"You've got to be able to win when you don't make shots, and we made sure to try to do that today," Cronin said, echoing the message former Bearcats Danny Fortson and Anthony Buford recently delivered. "We shot five percent (on 3-pointers) and 29.5 percent overall and we dominated a top (25) team. They're in the top five in the nation in efficiency - assists and taking care of the ball. They're a team that doesn't make the mistakes we forced them into today."
Senior guard Farad Cobb returned to Cincinnati's starting lineup after missing the previous two games with a knee injury. Senior forward Shaq Thomas missed his third straight game with a groin injury.
SMU, which had won four straight games and five of the last six, went into the game tied with Temple for first place in the AAC. The Owls were scheduled to wrap up the regular season at last-place Tulane later Sunday.
"It's tough for them to have to end their season with no postseason," Cronin said. "They went 9-0 without (coach Larry Brown to open the season). They came in here and gave it their best shot to win a conference championship."
DeBerry scored eight points to help Cincinnati take a 34-27 lead into halftime. The Bearcats expanded that 51-40 on two free throws by senior forward Octavius Ellis with 8:11 left in the game.
The Mustangs cut the lead to 55-52 on a Moore putback and layup by freshman guard Shake Milton, but the Bearcats went 6-for-8 on free throws in the last 1:36 to pull away.
NOTES: Cincinnati already has clinched the fourth seed in the upcoming AAC tournament in Orlando, Fla., and is scheduled to play fifth-seeded Connecticut on Friday at 2 p.m. ET. The Bearcats swept the two-game regular-season series with the Huskies. ... The Bearcats unveiled new black uniforms that they also will wear in postseason play. ... The Bearcats honored seniors Farad Cobb, Coreontae DeBerry, Octavius Ellis and Shaq Thomas in pre-game ceremonies. ... Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson also was honored during the second media timeout for receiving the NBA's Lifetime Achievement Award on Feb. 14. He received a framed version of the jerseys worn by the Bearcats on Sunday bearing the number "12," which has been retired in his honor.