Unable to keep SMU from driving into the paint for easy shots, Tulane appeared headed for yet another home loss in the American Athletic Conference.
That’s when the Green Wave played its best stretch of basketball in a long time.
Trailing 51-39 with 12:30 left, Tulane ramped up its execution on both ends of the floor, went on a 24-8 run against one of the best defensive teams in the country and held on to win 73-70 on Thursday night in front of 1,512 at Devlin Fieldhouse.
This one was huge. Defending AAC champions SMU, which had beaten Arizona and USC, could not stop the surging momentum as Tulane bounced back from a lackadaisical loss to Tulsa on New Year’s Eve and won for only the fifth time in 29 AAC home games.
“I expected a bounce back,” coach Mike Dunleavy said. “We contested their shots and stopped them at the rim, were able to get in the open court and push the ball as well.”
After winning six games in Dunleavy’s first year, Tulane (11-4, 2-1 AAC) has almost doubled that total through 15 games, surprising Temple and now SMU (12-4, 2-1), which was coming off a 79-39 destruction of South Florida.
Cameron Reynolds led Tulane with 20 points and 6 rebounds, playing all 40 minutes. Melvin Frazier added 15 points, freshman Caleb Daniels scored 11 and Ray Ona Embo contributed 9. Frazier and Ona Embo also played all 40 minutes in an ironman effort for the Wave.
Shake Milton led SMU with 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, but his teammates went 16 of 43. Jarrey Foster was the only other player in double figures, scoring 16.
“We turned it up defensively, we made some good decisions, we rebounded the ball and our fans really got into it,” Dunleavy said. “They gave us a nice little lift there as well.”
This one turned quickly.
Frazier capped a 6-0 spurt with a flying, one-handed dunk to cut the deficit to 51-45.
“Mel’s dunk ignited everything,” Reynolds said. “He’s really the one who sparked us and got everything rolling.”
Jordan Cornish started a streak of three consecutive 3-pointers with a shot from the corner to pull the Wave within 56-55. Reynolds sank the next two on back-to-back trips down the floor, tying the score at 58 and putting Tulane ahead for the first time since early in the first half, 61-58.
“I work on those shots every day,” Reynolds said. “Coach expects me to shoot them. One time he told me to shoot when I wasn’t even thinking about shooting. I have to knock them down all the time.”
SMU, which was holding opponents to 58.9 points per game, the eighth lowest total in the nation, could not stop the Wave during the pivotal stretch.
Daniels hit a mid-range jumper for a 63-58 lead. After SMU drained a 3, Frazier answered it with one from the corner.
The Mustangs scored 5 points in a row to tie it at 66 before Frazier drove into the lane, stopped and popped to give the Wave the lead for good, 68-66, with 22 seconds left.
“I just attacked,” he said. “I saw an open space and just went for the shot. It was a good shot, so I just took it.”
SMU hurt its cause by missing the front end of two one-and-ones, the latter with 49.6 left while down 2.
Tulane forward Samir Sehic then hit two free throws after being fouled with 19 seconds remaining to pad the advantage to 70-66. He sealed the victory with two more free throws at the 7.8-second mark.
The Wave’s move to a smaller lineup to combat SMU’s similar switch paid dividends. Starting center Blake Paul played only 10 minutes, but the guards and forwards took turns posting up and either shooting or passing out to an open man when they were double teamed.
Reynolds was nearly flawless on post-ups from the baseline, hitting a series of shots from close range against smaller defenders.
“They were trying to double team me in the post, and coach said if they try to double team, go to my left hook,” Reynolds said. “It was working. Everyone’s post game was working. It’s not just me. It’s all about mismatches.”
Tulane trailed 33-26 at the half despite playing with much more intensity than against Tulsa. Just as in that game, the Wave had problem making open shots.
Cornish missed all four of his 3-point attempts before the break, part of a team-wide 1-for-10 effort from behind the arc. Tulane got the looks it wanted but could not knock them down. Reynolds came up empty on his first three shots but finally hit one on baseline post-up to pull the Wave with 17-15 at the 7:58 mark.
In the second half, almost everyone got hot, with the Wave hitting 16 of 27 shots (59.2 percent). Tulane also outrebounded SMU 18-12 in the final 20 minutes after getting killed 52-30 on the boards by Tulsa.
“We had good patience and made some good passes out of the post,” Dunleavy said. “Our guys did a great job battling.”