HARTFORD, Conn. — East Carolina came out firing, knocking down 3-pointer after 3-pointer to surprise American Athletic Conference regular-season champion Southern Methodist in the conference tournament quarterfinals Friday.
But with help from junior guard Nic Moore, the Mustangs managed to find their footing, overcoming a long-distance barrage by the Pirates to hold on for a 74-68 win.
“Feel kind of fortunate we’re up here talking about playing tomorrow,” SMU coach Larry Brown said. “When a team shoots outside as well as they did, you’ve got to be pretty fortunate you’re going to move on.”
The AAC player of the year, Moore finished with 20 points, including two clutch free throws with a minute remaining to help seal the win. The 5-foot-9 point guard also had five assists and two steals, playing all but one minute.
Southern Methodist will face either No. 4 seed Temple or No. 5 seed Memphis in Saturday’s semifinal.
East Carolina, the conference’s eighth seed, certainly kept things interesting through its perimeter shooting, knocking down a season-high 15 3-pointers on 34 attempts (44.1 percent) to threaten the upset.
Three Pirates guards knocked down four treys apiece: junior Terry Whisnant (18 points), senior Antonio Robinson (18 points) and sophomore Caleb White (14 points).
It was a career high for Robinson in his final collegiate game.
“A lot of teams don’t play my 3-pointer, so today I was like, ‘If I’m open, I’m going to shoot it,'” Robinson said. “I try to play every game like it’s my last — practice and game day, same thing. I try to leave it all on the court.”
Every time SMU looked like it would pull away, ECU hit a few from deep to make it a game again.
The Mustangs matched their largest advantage at 59-51 with 8:58 remaining, but the Pirates responded with an 11-2 run to retake a one-point lead with 6:10 to play.
SMU junior Markus Kennedy (15 points) came up with several big buckets for his team down the stretch, however. The 6-foot-11 forward had 3-point plays on consecutive possessions, the latter putting his team up three with four minutes to go.
“He’s a beast in there,” ECU coach Jeff Lebo said of the conference’s sixth man of the year. “He’s got great hands, he can pass, he can rebound. … (When) you’ve got a guy like that and you can bring him off the bench, you’ve got a chance to have a special season.”
ECU went cold over the final four minutes, missing five straight shots and committing three turnovers to help SMU escape with the win.
Giveaways were a problem for East Carolina all afternoon, as the Pirates turned the ball over 15 times, leading to a 27-11 advantage for the Mustangs in points off turnovers and a 17-9 advantage on the fast break.
“Turnovers got us going,” Brown said, “and gave us a chance to win.”
East Carolina came out knocking down five of its first six long-range attempts, opening up a 19-9 lead in the first eight minutes.
Moore then scored his first 11 points in a five-minute span, including eight during a 12-0 run that saw his team take its biggest advantage, 28-22. It was his ability to get out in transition off ECU mistakes that got his motor running.
“He was player of the year — that’s what they’re supposed to do,” Brown said. “It’s really hard, especially for him, to score against a set defense that’s really geared to stop him. He gave us a lift; he made a couple really unbelievable hustle plays. I think that was really significant.”
East Carolina responded with five straight points to keep it close, though it was a 37-32 halftime advantage in favor of the top seed.
NOTES: Southern Methodist’s American Athletic Conference regular-season championship was its first since 1993, when it was a member of the Southwest Conference. … SMU won the only regular-season meeting between the two schools, with five players scoring in double figures in a 77-54 win back on Jan. 17. … East Carolina defeated No. 9 Central Florida 81-80 in overtime in the opening round — a game in which neither team scored for the final three minutes. … ECU coach Jeff Lebo had a brief career
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