via The Sports Xchange
The lead was 24 points late in the first half against a team they had defeated twice this season by a combined 71 points.
Is it any wonder that perhaps the No. 12 SMU Mustangs relaxed a bit early in Friday’s American Athletic Conference quarterfinal against the East Carolina Pirates?
Whether it was a drop in intensity or East Carolina’s sudden surge from the 3-point line, the Mustangs found themselves in deep trouble, especially after Elijah Hughes’ 3-pointer for the Pirates with 56.0 seconds left erased the top seed’s once-large lead.
But Semi Ojeleye rescued SMU from an embarrassing defeat with the game’s last four points as it survived 81-77 at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., to advance to a Saturday semifinal against either Memphis or Central Florida.
“I felt like I had a couple of good looks,” Ojeleye said. “They’re a good team and I felt like they were coming back, so everybody was just looking to score and be aggressive.”
Ojeleye put back a miss by teammate Sterling Brown with 33.7 seconds remaining for a two-point edge. After Pirates forward Kentrell Barkley fumbled a potential tying layup out of bounds with 15.6 ticks on the clock, Ojeleye capped a career-high 36-point outing by draining a pair of foul shots with 13.3 seconds left.
That allowed the Mustangs (28-4) to survive a frightening last 10 minutes that saw East Carolina score a whopping 38 points, fueled largely by the 3-point line. The ninth-seeded Pirates sank seven 3-pointers in a span of 7:26, capped by Hughes’ 3 from the left wing that erased a 43-19 deficit.
But with a small crowd firmly behind it, save for the SMU fans, East Carolina couldn’t do anything with Ojeleye and saw its season end at 15-18.
Brown finished with 16 points for the Mustangs, who have won 14 straight games and 24 of their last 25, mostly by double-digit margins. This looked like more of the same for the first 30 minutes, even with a perceptible letup after halftime.
SMU canned 12 of its first 17 shots and took its first double-figure lead just over 11 minutes into the game on a jumper by AAC Sixth Man of the Year Ben Emelogu. Making the extra pass offensively and cutting off everything the Pirates tried offensively, the Mustangs opened up a 39-19 margin at the 2:23 mark and appeared well on the way to a third lopsided decision over the Pirates.
“It’s a different basketball team SMU saw tonight than the last time we saw them and even the time prior to that,” said East Carolina interim coach Michael Perry. “They finally got to a point where they’re not going to run home — they’re going to fight.”
With Barkley, who had 26 points and 16 rebounds in Thursday’s 80-69 first round win over Temple, collecting another 24 points while playing the full 40 minutes on a sore knee, the Pirates didn’t let this one become a blowout.
Caleb White added 17 points and Hughes scored 15, including a layup off a steal with 3:13 left that drew East Carolina within 71-69. It appeared that Ojeleye’s 3-pointer and Brown’s 3-point play had steadied the waters for the Mustangs, giving them a 77-69 advantage at the 2:06 mark.
However, White stroked a 3-pointer, Barkley scored in transition and Emelogu’s offensive foul led to Hughes’ stunning equalizer that put SMU in full upset alert.
“We can’t let teams come back on us like we did today,” Ojeleye said. “You can’t take teams for granted.”
Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich, while not thrilled with his team’s loss of intensity and focus, said it was a lesson that could pay dividends next week and beyond.
“Totally disappointed in our rebounding — 100 percent awful,” Jankovich said. “But we needed this. We haven’t been in a scramble situation for quite some time, and this is tournament time. You need to feel this. I really couldn’t have scripted it much better, honestly.”