Right after the final buzzer, SMU Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Larry Brown turned to the Mustangs’ large group of fans at Devlin Fieldhouse and acknowledged them with an exaggerated wave and fist pump.
Brown, who played for the New Orleans Buccaneers in the American Basketball Association at Loyola Fieldhouse in 1967-68, has what Tulane has been unable to build since the heyday of former coach Perry Clark in the 1990s: a winning team that executes in the clutch and responds well to adversity.
Trailing by three early in the second half and enduring its worst shooting percentage of the season, No. 10 SMU pulled away from Tulane late to win 60-45 on Sunday.
Barred from postseason play because of an NCAA rules violation, the Mustangs (17-0, 6-0 AAC) kept alive their chance to make history in another way: by becoming the first team to finish undefeated since Indiana in 1975-76.
With 13 games left, they are a heck of a long way from that accomplishment, but no other college team has any chance. Brown could not help reflecting on the difference between his initial season at SMU in 2012-13 and now.
“The first year I got there, we’d play a home game, and you could hear a person on one side of the arena call out a person on the other side of the arena and ask where they were going to meet after the game,” Brown said. “Now every game is sold out, and we go on the road and we have pretty good support. I never imagined that this would happen.
“These kids have been through so much. I think a lot of people who have a relationship with SMU really feel strongly about this group and want to let them know they care about them.”
Tulane (8-11, 1-5) has won too seldom to make its fans care that much in a long time, but the Wave could have taken the first step Sunday. After an impossibly ugly first half when the teams combined for more turnovers (18) than baskets (17), Tulane hit three 3-pointers to start the second half and went ahead 30-27 on freshman Melvin Frazier’s steal and layup with 14:38 left.
The net was on lockdown the rest of the way. The Wave made only two field goals in the next 14 minutes, negating its stellar defense. SMU, which entered as the nation’s No. 4 team in field-goal accuracy (52.1 percent), shot a season-worst 40.4 percent.
That number easily beat Tulane’s 29.2 percent, also a season low. The Wave added to its misery with 20 turnovers, including one when freshman Kain Harris tried a no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass.
“We followed our game plan perfectly, but we just turned it over too many times,” coach Ed Conroy said. “If we had hung on to the ball five, six or seven more times, we would have been in better position. It wasn’t going to be a high-scoring game.”
Tulane still had a shot when Frazier slammed in an alley-oop from Malik Morgan with 4:18 left to close the gap to 48-41. The basket caused a short delay when a fan spilled beer on the court in celebration.
Soon after, SMU scored on five straight possessions while the Wave came up empty, losing for the 29th consecutive time against a top-10 opponent since its most recent victory in 1983.
“It was anybody’s game, and they did a really good job and made some big-time defensive plays,” Conroy said. “We got the ball three straight times in really good spots on the floor and weren’t able to convert.”
Frazier led Tulane with 11 points, and Morgan added 10 while committing six turnovers.
SMU had a typically balanced effort, with Markus Kennedy scoring a game-high 13, Jordan Tolbert and Nic Moore contributing 12 and Ben Moore getting 11.
Tulane has games at Connecticut (Tuesday) and Cincinnati (Sunday) next on the agenda.
“We probably missed four or five dunks and missed a couple of other really good looks toward the end,” Conroy said. “If we make those we score 60, and we don’t have to foul them at the end.”