GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) No. 10 SMU has found a bright spot in only having seven scholarship players: Plenty of touches for everyone.
Ben Moore scored 17 points and the Mustangs remained unbeaten by routing East Carolina 79-55 on Wednesday night.
Six of the seven SMU players who played the first 39 minutes reached double figures in either scoring or assists, strong production from a group that’s become so short-handed that coach Larry Brown says they practice 4 on 4.
”We’re all learning how to adjust, but they’re a unique group of kids who care about each other,” Brown said. ”We know it’s not going to get any easier.”
Markus Kennedy had 11 points and 10 rebounds, Jordan Tolbert finished with 15 points and Nic Moore had a career-high 12 assists for the Mustangs (16-0, 5-0 American Athletic Conference), who had five double-figure scorers for the fourth time this season.
Playing their first game as a top-10 team in 31 years, they never trailed and shot 52.5 percent while extending the best start – and second-longest winning streak – in school history. The pass-first Mustangs had assists on 23 of their 31 baskets.
”This win right here solidifies what we’ve been doing all season,” Kennedy said.
Caleb White and B.J. Tyson scored 15 points apiece to lead the Pirates (8-9, 0-4), who shot 33 percent in the second half and lost their fourth straight to remain one of two teams winless in AAC play.
Shake Milton scored 13 points and Sterling Brown had 11 for SMU, which put this one away by opening the second half with a 17-4 run. The Mustangs held East Carolina scoreless for five minutes and pushed their lead into the 20s on a 3-pointer by Milton that made it 58-36 with just over 13 minutes left. The Pirates never got closer than 17 the rest of the way.
SMU moved into the top 10 earlier this week for the first time since 1984-85, when the Mustangs climbed to No. 2 with future NBA center Jon Koncak patrolling the paint in Dallas. Unlike that team, this group won’t play in the postseason due to NCAA sanctions, meaning the finish line comes March 6 at Cincinnati.
So while these Mustangs won’t win a national championship, they kept themselves on track to win all their games.
”I’m not sure that they have NBA players, like an NBA guy, but they have a lot of really, really good high-level college players,” East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo said. ”They play so much the right way and share the ball. It’s really beautiful to watch.”
SMU, which ranks third in Division I with a rebounding margin of plus-12.6, finished with a 42-22 rebounding advantage. The Mustangs led 21-6 before the Pirates grabbed their first rebound, and they allowed East Carolina just five offensive boards while rebounding 27 of ECU’s misses. ”If they miss it,” Lebo said, ”they get it most of the time and get extra opportunities.”
”Nic Moore makes some passes out there that are just obscene” – Lebo.
The game matched two members of Dean Smith’s coaching tree. Smith coached Larry Brown in the early 1960s and Lebo in the late 1980s. Lebo also played for Brown with the San Antonio Spurs in 1989-90. ”This has bene a tough year being a Carolina guy,” Brown said, referring to the deaths of both Smith and longtime assistant Bill Guthridge during the past 12 months. ”I don’t enjoy playing against Jeff. I have a lot of admiration for him.”
SMU: Guard Keith Frazier, who averages 11.9 points, missed his fourth straight game and has been away from the team for personal reasons.
East Carolina: The Pirates were denied their first victory over a nationally ranked opponent since they knocked off Dwyane Wade and No. 13 Marquette in 2002. They fell to 1-5 when hosting a top-10 opponent.
SMU is at Tulane on Sunday.
East Carolina is at Central Florida on Saturday.
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(This version corrects SMU’s ranking in 1985 to No. 2.)