NEW YORK — A little over two weeks ago, the Southern Methodist University Mustangs were bummed they weren’t chosen to be in the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.
The Mustangs’ body of work wasn’t deemed good enough for an invite, but time and a trip to a postseason tournament final are healing SMU’s wounds. SMU is headed to its first NIT championship game after it dispatched Clemson 65-59 in the semifinals Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
SMU, the top overall seed in the tournament, faces either Minnesota or Florida State on Thursday. The Gophers and Seminoles played Tuesday’s late game.
“Everyone realizes 68 terrific teams got in the NCAAs, and we look at this (NIT) as a great opportunity for us,” said 73-year-old SMU coach Larry Brown, who also coached UCLA, Kansas and nine teams in the NBA. “The NIT is like a national championship, especially when I was growing up.”
Clemson (23-13) came up short in its bid to make a third trip for an NIT final. The Tigers lost to Cal in the 1999 title game and to West Virginia in the 2007 final.
Forward Markus Kennedy led SMU (27-9) with 21 points and nine rebounds.
Forward Rod Hall led four Clemson players in double figures with 18 points. Forward K.J. McDaniels scored 11 points, and forward Landry Nnoko and guard Damarcus Harrison each dropped in 10 points.
Clemson shot just 6-for-25 from the floor in the second half, getting outscored 39-21.
Clemson went the final 6:40 without a field goal before a dunk by McDaniels with 21 seconds to play pulled the Tigers within 58-57. SMU guard Nick Russell drained both ends of a one-and-one for a 60-57 cushion with 12.7 seconds remaining.
After Hall converted two foul shots to pull Clemson within 60-59 with nine seconds left, Kennedy broke free for a layup and was fouled. The three-point play gave SMU a 63-59 cushion.
Following a Clemson turnover, Mustangs guard Nic Moore sank two free throws with four seconds left for the final margin.
Two free throws from Kennedy gave SMU its first lead of the game, 55-53, with 5:09 left in the game, and Moore’s free throw upped the SMU lead to 56-53 with 3:13 to go. Clemson saw its 13-point lead early in the second half whittle away.
Hall sank two free throws to bring Clemson to within 56-55 with 1:43 to play, but Kennedy countered with a jumper to move the SMU lead to 58-55 with 1:29 left.
Clemson outscored SMU 10-5 in the final 3:43 of the first half to take a 38-26 lead into the break. The Tigers blocked five shots in the first half, but they blocked just two shots after halftime.
SMU is just one season removed from going 15-17 in Brown’s first year at the Dallas school.
“Sterling (Brown) wasn’t with us last year, and Markus (Kennedy was) sitting out, and we didn’t have anybody that would go on the road and watch us play, let alone have people watch us play at home,” Brown said. “To be playing in this special building for a championship with our fans so supportive, that was the most special moment we’ve all had I think since we’ve been here.”
The Mustangs made their deepest run in the NIT in school history. In 1986 and 2000, they were eliminated by BYU and Southwest Missouri State, respectively, in the first round.
Clemson improved by 10 games over last season’s record of 13-18.
“I think the only people that felt like we were going to have a good season this year were the players and coaches,” Tigers coach Brad Brownell said. “Tonight you saw the good and the bad of Clemson basketball this year.
“The first half we played as well as we can play. I thought we guarded them well. Then in the second half, you saw the team that sometimes rears its ugly head.”
NOTES: The teams met for the first time since Clemson recorded a 67-51 victory in 1970. … Clemson’s 15 NIT appearances are the most among Atlantic Coast Conference schools. … The Tigers’ lead the NCAA in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.284). … Clemson F K.J. McDaniels is one of only two players in ACC history to record at
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