BY: Richard W. Humphrey
The Men’s basketball team is back in action tonight after a nine day break for finals. Fans, coaches and players are feeling much better about the team after they beat UC-Santa Barbara last week for their fourth win in a row, which improved this season’s record to 6-3.
Usually, a team on a winning streak wants to keep playing. In this case though, the break from games was welcome from an injury standpoint. Nic Moore actually injured his knee two games ago. He played against UCSB even with a slightly detectable limp. Unfortunately, he hit the knee in the same spot early in the second half and was not able to return. As of yesterday, Moore’s return for tonight’s game was questionable.
Also, Justin Martin has been nursing a bone bruise. He missed four games completely, before logging 13 minutes of playing time against the Gauchos, and looked rusty doing so.
There are undoubtedly other nagging injuries that need the rest too. In the case of Moore though, the injury may have been a blessing in disguise. In past games, the offense bogged down when Moore was on the bench. The result is that head coach Larry Brown has been forced to play Moore more than desired.
Against UCSB, the Ponies held a 14 point lead shortly after Moore departed, but with the Mustangs’ offense turning sluggish and a suddenly hot three point hand, the Gauchos steadily ate into the lead. They caught the Mustangs and three times took the lead. SMU finally got the offense together and seemingly took charge of the game with Ryan Manuel doing most of the ball handling. The Bens - Emelogu and Moore - also helped.
The game should have been won in regulation, but the Mustangs missed some critical free throws in the final 90 seconds that allowed the Gauchos to send the game into overtime with a three point shot at the 10 second mark.
UCSB’s three point magic (they made nine in the second half alone to overcome the nine point halftime deficit) vanished in overtime. They were 0-6 from behind the arc, and scored just six points. SMU took the lead early, with four critical points coming from Emelogu on two free throws and a basket. UCSB was forced to foul late to stop the clock, and this time SMU was sharp from the charity stripe. They made nine of nine and outscored the Gauchos 13-6 in overtime for the nine point win.
It had to be a confidence builder to win without Nic Moore at the critical time of end game and overtime.
Before the winning streak, the feeling was that this team simply wasn’t as good as last year’s. That sounds illogical as eight key players returned from last year’s team that learned how to win. The experience of last year had to be a positive for this season.
The team looks considerably different now, perhaps just as good as last year’s at this point. This team plays outstanding defense. Against the Gauchos, with the Nic Moore on the bench and the offense sputtering, it was the defense fueled the offense late in the game, as the Mustangs came up with stop after stop. Seemingly, all the hustle balls went the Ponies’ way.
Indeed in the last two games, the Mustangs have held two top post players well below their average; a critical element in both wins. Wyoming’s Larry Nance, Jr. led the team in scoring and rebounding, but was held to just four points on 1-4 shooting. UCSB’s Alan Williams will certainly be playing in the NBA next year. He came into the game averaging more than 19 points and 13 rebounds, but failed to reach double digits in either category. UCSB’s coach said that it was the best defensive job any team had done against Williams in the four years he’s been with the Gauchos.
With finals in the books, the fate of Markus Kennedy should be known soon. A check with the Sports Information Department this week indicated there was no update yet. Word on the street is that his return from academic excommunication is not assured. He may be lost for the rest of the year. Hopefully, that won’t happen. The inside play has been good in his absence with Yanick Moreira, Ben Moore and Cannen Cunningham playing well. But Kennedy was second team all conference last season, and his absence has been felt already. Hopefully, he pulled out the grades to regain his academic eligibility.
Tonight’s game against Illinois-Chicago starts at 7:00 PM (Central) and will be televised by the CBS Sports Network. A check of eight Las Vegas betting sites has the Mustangs favored by 18-1/2 to 19 points. The Mustangs then hit the road to play Michigan Saturday in Ann Arbor. Game time is noon Eastern and 11:00 AM Central, and the game will be televised on ESPN2.