Larry Brown leads SMU to NIT final

NEW YORK -- Larry Brown went 23-59 in his one season coaching the New York Knicks.

Things are going a lot better at Southern Methodist.

The Mustangs have now won 27 games this season -- one off the school record -- in only Brown’s second year at the helm. And their latest victory came in a place he knows well: Madison Square Garden.

SMU trailed by 13 early in the second half Tuesday, and didn’t take its first lead until just more than five minutes remained. But once Brown’s crew had the lead, they never relinquished it, beating Clemson 65-59 to advance to the NIT championship game.

“I’m really proud of my team,” Brown said. “I think the first half, Clemson did about as well as any team that we played against. They controlled the tempo, they had much more energy than us, they executed great. And we didn’t have much to say at halftime, except we had to match their energy and possibly play harder than them. I thought it was the best half we played all year.”

It was indeed a tale of two halves. Clemson led 38-26 at the break, thanks to 56 percent shooting from the field. That included making 6-of-9 from beyond the 3-point arc, against an SMU team ranked seventh in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage.

The Mustangs picked up the intensity in the second half. And the Tigers shot just 6-for-25 overall and 2-for-11 from long range.

“We just did what we usually do,” SMU forward Sterling Brown said. “We just turned it up a little more.”

Fellow forward Markus Kennedy was the player of the game, with 21 points and nine rebounds. Point guard Nic Moore chipped in 13 points, five rebounds and four assists for the Mustangs, who will play Minnesota in the title game Thursday.

The 73-year-old Brown has nothing to prove. He remains the only coach to win both an NCAA championship and an NBA title, and already has the Basketball Hall of Fame on his résumé. But he has done a remarkable job rejuvenating SMU in short order.

The Mustangs have not made the NCAA tournament since 1993, but just missed this year, the first team left out of the field.

Instead, SMU was awarded one of four No. 1 seeds in the NIT. And four wins later, it has reached the final.

“We haven’t had a lot of nice things happen at SMU for a long, long time,” Brown said. “To be in this environment, playing in this championship in this special building, with our fans so supportive, that’s the most special moment we’ve all had I think since we’ve been there.”

Brown’s brief stint with the Knicks was eight years ago now. But with the Brooklyn native back in town, he was asked to share some memories after the game.

“I love this place,” Brown said. “I’m not happy with the job I did with the Knicks, but I grew up loving the Knicks and loving the Garden, and I wanted our guys to experience [it].”

He was also asked about current Knicks coach Mike Woodson, a former assistant and close friend. Woodson was at the game Tuesday, sitting behind the SMU bench.

“I talk to him every day. He’s a big part of my life,” Brown said. “He’s gone through hell, and they got it going. Last I looked they’re right there with a chance to make the playoffs, and I’m thrilled for him.”

As it happens, the Knicks will host the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday at the Garden, in between the NIT semifinals and title game. And it sounds like the former Knicks coach may attend.

“I don’t know if they’ll let me in the Garden tomorrow night,” Brown said, chuckling. “I’ve got a night off. I don’t know -- I’ll either go see Les Mis or the Knicks.”

Whatever Brown decides to do Wednesday, he’ll be back here one night later, with a chance to add another championship to his collection.