HARTFORD, Conn. — Southern Methodist is back in a place it hasn’t been in quite some time.
Next week, the Mustangs will return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years.
Southern Methodist used stellar defense against Temple on Saturday to advance to the American Athletic Conference championship game with a 69-56 victory at the XL Center.
The 20th-ranked Mustangs will play in a conference championship game for the first time since 1988 when they took the Southwest Conference title against Baylor. SMU will play Tulsa or Connecticut in Sunday’s final.
To reach the tournament final in the conference’s second year of existence, SMU shut down a team they had beaten twice already this season.
“It’s pretty hard to beat a team three times, especially a quality team with an unbelievable coach,” SMU coach Larry Brown said. “To beat a Temple team, a quality program like that three times, it really means a lot to our program.”
Temple junior forward Jaylen Bond started the second half with a jumper to put the Owls up by four points, and then it was all Mustangs.
SMU made seven straight shots from the field during a six-minute span of the second half, taking its largest lead to that point at 49-38 on an alley-oop dunk by Ryan Manuel with 11:52 remaining.
A 23-8 SMU run after Bond’s jumper left Temple unable to regain its footing.
“We were just getting stops and executing,” said sophomore forward Sterling Brown, who finished with eight points and a team-high 10 rebounds. “We talked about that at halftime. We wanted to come out and execute and do what coach said.”
Two quick fouls by Bond — his third and fourth of the game — early in the second half helped pave the way for SMU’s run. Bond’s fourth foul had Temple’s bench riled up after he was whistled while chasing down a loose ball with 17 seconds remaining.
“It was an interesting play, to say the least,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said.
Junior forward Markus Kennedy, a Philadelphia native and former Villanova Wildcat who is in his second season at SMU, continued his success against his hometown team and former Big 5 rival. The AAC’s Sixth Man of the Year, who had 21 points against Temple in a victory in January, finished with a game-high 17 points and nine rebounds.
“I know most of their team, I’m real good friends with a lot of them,” Kennedy said. “It was always love when I play against Temple, but I play hard for my teammates. … I think that’s what it is more than anything, just playing harder for my teammates because I know how much this game means.”
The loss leaves Temple with a long 24 hours until Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show, where they Owls probably will be one of the last four teams in the field, if they are included at all.
Dunphy had certainly hoped to avoid the bubble, but his team couldn’t find the offense to make it happen.
The Owls were held to 27.3 percent shooting from the field (9 of 33) in the second half and 29.3 percent overall, the third time this season they have been below 30 percent from the floor and the second time in the last five games.
“I thought we had some decent looks in the second half,” Dunphy said. “I thought we may have rushed it a few times.”
Junior wing Quenton DeCosey paced Temple with 14 points and senior guard Jesse Morgan added 10 on his 24th birthday.
The Mustangs started almost as slowly from the floor, going 10 of 26 (38.5 percent) in the first half but 15 of 27 (55.6 percent) in the second, hitting nine of their first 10 shots.
But SMU won’t be have to wait on Selection Sunday this year after the Mustangs were somewhat controversially left out of the tournament last year after winning 23 games in the regular season.
The regular-season AAC champions are a lock to go dancing for the first time since 1993 and for just the fourth time since 1968.
NOTES: SMU’s 52 victories over the last two seasons are the most in any such span in school history.
Alabama fires head coach Grant
Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.
The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.
Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.
“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.
“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”
Kentucky routs Arkansas for SEC tourney title
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No. 1-ranked Kentucky will take a perfect 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament this week after thrashing Arkansas 78-63 in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.
The conference tournament title is the 28th for Kentucky, meaning the Wildcats have won more than half of the 55 tournaments.
“This team has a lot of dog in it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Good, hard fought game. Arkansas is a ranked team, but we kind of did our thing.”
Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who was named tournament MVP, paced Kentucky with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. It was his first double-double since the Columbia game on Dec. 10.
Cauley-Stein was joined on the all-tournament team by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison of Kentucky, Michael Qualls of Arkansas and K.T. Harrell of Auburn.
Andrew Harrison, a sophomore guard, scored 15 points. Twin brother Aaron Harrison had 11 points and six assists. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis added eight points and six assists.
Guard Michael Qualls topped No. 21 Arkansas (26-8) with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Forward Bobby Portis had 13 points.
“Our guys came out and scratched and clawed,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “But at the end, I thought their depth and size were hard to overcome. If a team is going to beat them, you’ve got to make shots as well as match their energy.”
The finals pitted the top two seeds in Kentucky and Arkansas, but the Wildcats wasted little time proving that winning the regular season by five games was no fluke. Kentucky roared out to an 8-0 lead within the first two minutes, forcing Anderson to call an early timeout. Point guard Andrew Harrison scored six of the eight on a pair of 3-pointers.
“If the other team is angry, mad, hateful, jealous, the physiology of that is real close to fear,” Calipari said. “When a team comes in that way, if you can just play and that thing turns into fear, you separate yourself. Joy, the love of playing, always beats angry, mean, hateful, jealous.”
Arkansas managed to score five unanswered points after the break and eventually tied the game at 10-10 on a 3-pointer by Portis. The SEC player of the year had missed 16 of his previous 17 shots in the tournament before the basket.
The game was tied 19-19 with 10:18 to play in the first half when Kentucky caught fire, scoring 16 points in 5:05 for a 35-23 lead. Aaron Harrison scored six points during the 16-4 run on a pair of 3-pointers. He also assisted on two dunks by Cauley-Stein and a basket in the paint by sophomore center Dakari Johnson. Freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns accounted for the remaining four points.
All six Kentucky field goals during the run were accompanied by an assist, including three by Aaron Harrison. At the time, Kentucky was shooting 59 percent (13 of 22), including 5 of 6 on three-pointers.
Kentucky went on to expand the lead to 16 points by halftime, 41-25, meaning the Wildcats outscored Arkansas 22-6 over the final 10:18 of the first half.
Cauley-Stein led the way in the first half with eight points and eight rebounds. Aaron Harrison added eight points and six assists. Andrew Harrison scored six points.
Kentucky shots 51.9 percent in the first half, and 12 of the 14 baskets came via assists. The Wildcats were 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
Arkansas, which never led, shot just 29 percent in the first half. Portis topped the Razorbacks with seven points. Arkansas had just two assists and five turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
In the second half, Arkansas managed to trim Kentucky’s lead from 16 to nine at 48-39 at the 11:55 mark. During that time, Towns picked up his fourth personal foul with 14:07 to play.
“We cut it to nine points in the second half, but we couldn’t get over the hump,” Anderson said.
From that point forward the two teams battled mostly to a draw before Kentucky pulled away late in the half.
Kentucky pushed the lead back 18 points at 6:10 thanks to an 11-2 run.
Kentucky’s largest lead of the game was 21 points, which came with 2:41 to play.
Wisconsin earns top seed after conference tournament win
CHICAGO — The Wisconsin Badgers earned a historic NCAA top seed Sunday, but their approach going forward will be strictly business as usual.
Wisconsin (31-3) beat Michigan State 80-69 in overtime in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game to complete a championship sweep and were rewarded with the first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in program history.
“I’m sure it will sink in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “What we need right now is to get these guys back (home). We have class tomorrow, some of these guys have tests, they’ve got midterms this week. So it will be business as usual for our student-athletes.”
But players like forward Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten tournament most outstanding player, are pretty pumped up.
“It’s awesome,” Kaminsky said. “First No. 1 seed in program history. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, but we have a lot of goals and aspirations in the NCAA Tournament. So we’re going to prepare for our first game and be ready we tip the ball up.”
No. 6 ranked Wisconsin, the league’s regular-season champion, claimed the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA berth with the overtime win at the United Center and meets No. 16 Coastal Carolina (24-9) in Friday’s West Region opener in Omaha, Neb.
The overtime outcome was the first in Big Ten tournament history.
Michigan State (23-11) is also tourney bound with a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Spartans will face Georgia, which is the 10th seed, on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.
Ryan was initially at a loss for words after the Badgers’ dramatic come-from-behind win.
“I’m speechless and that’s hard to do,” he said. “It was the fight in this group, and to do what they did when it seemed like Michigan State couldn’t do anything wrong. I just hope we have something left in us come NCAA Tournament time.”
The Badgers rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and back into contention late in the game. They then scored 11 unanswered points in overtime behind seven points form forward Nigel Hayes.
Hayes closed with a game-high 25 points and was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Kaminsky had 19, guard Bronson Koenig finished with 18 while reserve forward Duje Dukan added 11.
Michigan State, making its third title game appearance in four years, was led by forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine with 16 apiece while reserve guard Bryn Forbes had 10.
“I thought we played one of the greatest games we’ve ever played for 32, 32 and one-half minutes or 35, 36 minutes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “And then we made a couple of mistakes and they made a couple of great shots and that’s the way the game goes.”
Wisconsin trailed 57-46 in the second half when Koenig launched a comeback with a 3-pointer and added another with 4:19 left to give the Badgers a temporary 60-59 lead.
“We were down eleven and they thought they had it in the bag,” Koenig said. “But I kept reminding my teammates that we were never going to give up.”
Guard Lourawls Nairn’s 3-pointer then put Michigan State up 62-60 as the teams exchanged leads three times and tied four times. The last in regulation came on Koenig’s two free throws for a 69-69 deadlock.
A potential game-winning shot by Dawson rolled in and out as regulation time expired.
In the first half, Michigan State outscored Wisconsin 10-5 in the final 3:25 for a 32-31 halftime lead after a half that saw with seven lead changes and five ties. The Spartans opened a 32-28 lead after a turnover by Koenig and a rebound put back by forward Marvin Clark with 25 seconds showing. But Wisconsin narrowed the deficit to 32-31 as Kaminsky hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
It was the Badger’s fifth successful shot from beyond the arc in the half. Wisconsin ended 13-of-26 (50 percent) on 3-point shooting for the game.
NOTES: Sunday’s game was tied 13 times and had 14 lead changes. … The Badgers claimed a 68-61 win in March in the long regular season meeting behind F Frank Kaminsky’s season-high 31 points. … The Badgers’ two previous Big Ten tournament titles came in wins over Illinois in 2004 and 2008. … Wisconsin’s 31 wins match an all-time