By Andy Lohman
Five times UConn has entered Moody Coliseum in the American Athletic Conference era. Five times SMU men’s basketball has worn the red jerseys. And five times the Huskies have left without a win.
The magic of the red jerseys was enough to snap SMU’s five-game losing streak and give the Mustangs a 77-59 win on Thursday night behind a stellar performance on both ends of the floor. SMU shot a season-high 57.1 percent (28-for-49) from the field, while holding UConn to 30 percent (21-70).
In 2014, SMU opened a renovated Moody in the red against UConn. On Valentine’s Day in 2015, SMU hosted ESPN College Gameday before a 73-55 win over UConn in the red unis. In 2016, the Mustangs picked up an 80-54 win against the Huskies on senior day in the scarlet get-up. Jan. 19, 2017 saw SMU beat UConn 69-49 en route to a second AAC championship in three years.
Thursday night’s win may not have been as grandiose, but it was similarly big for the 2018-19 Mustangs. During the five-game losing streak, SMU never lost by more than eight points, falling on a last-second shot on three separate occasions. The effort never waned, but the end-of-game execution was lacking. Closing out an emphatic victory over a conference rival builds confidence and momentum.
“You’ve got to build momentum somewhere,” junior guard Jimmy Whitt Jr. said. “It’s hard to build momentum when we’re losing, so I think this is going to help us going forward. Just getting back in the win column, feeling good going into the next game, trying to build off the good things.”
The Mustangs held such a large advantage in shooting percentage in large part to an efficient offense generating high-percentage looks. SMU outscored UConn 40-20 in the paint. Senior guard Jahmal McMurray led all scorers with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting to go with four rebounds, three assists and two steals. The 6-foot shooting guard excelled at driving the lane and finishing at the rim Thursday night.
“He’s driving the ball more and that’s by design and that’s really helping us,” head coach Tim Jankovich said.
“Definitely an A,” Whitt said when asked to grade McMurray’s night. “When you’re that efficient from the field, can get other guys involved with the assists, and rebound from his position and height, that means he’s doing all aspects of the game. Everything you can ask for.”
SMU is able to spread defenses out with its tandem of sophomore three-point-shooting big men, Ethan Chargoisand Isiaha Mike, who each knocked down a pair of threes Thursday. Mike has made at least one three in the last 11 games, including a six-game stretch from Jan. 19 through Feb. 10 where he made at least three in each contest. The long-distance threat forced UConn to play heavy outside on defense, opening the lane for McMurray to drive the basket.
On the defensive end, SMU broke from its traditional man-to-man defense to play a zone that stifled the Huskies. Active hands and strong effort guided the Mustangs to their best defensive performance of the season in terms of opponent’s field goal percentage (30.0).
“I just feel like we had better effort,” Whitt said. “That’s what this game came down to. We came out strong and played hard in the first half and kept it going. That was the biggest thing, just how hard we played.”
Holding a 36-28 halftime lead, The Mustangs started the second period strong. Freshman forward Feron Huntcontested a shot on the defensive end and seconds later threw down a transition dunk. Later, Mike knocked down a lay-up and three-pointer on back-to-back possessions to cap off a 13-3 run and give SMU a 49-31 lead at the under-16 media timeout.
Hunt shone in the second half, and got the red-clad crowd on its feet with an emphatic dunk. Taking a ball reversal from senior guard Nat Dixon, Hunt blew past Eric Cobb, cocked back and delivered a two-handed slam to put SMU up 60-45.
The Huskies made a small run late in the second half, but appropriately McMurray hit a step-back three-pointer to give SMU a 68-56 lead at the final media timeout, effectively sealing the game.
SMU improved to 13-12 on the year and 5-8 in AAC play with the win. The Mustangs next travel to UCF for an AAC contest in Orlando, Fla. on Sunday, Feb. 24 with an 11 a.m. CT tipoff.