PHILADELPHIA -- Dressed in an SMU letterman jacket and a backward baseball cap, Nic Moore emerged from the locker room toting his brown-bag lunch to go. His eyes weren’t red. His face wasn’t damp with tears. His voice didn’t crack.
He actually smiled, or sort of smirked.
This is the picture of devastation?
Four months ago, when the NCAA expelled SMU from the postseason for its academic misconduct, the Mustang players admitted that they’d set one simple goal -- to win every game they were permitted to play. And for 70 days, covering 18 games and 720 minutes of basketball, SMU did exactly that. Its roster kept dwindling, dropping down to seven scholarship players, but the Mustangs kept going.
In a season when no one could win consistently, SMU could never lose, eventually becoming the last undefeated team left standing in the country.
So it would stand to reason that on Sunday, minutes after Temple cut the Mustangs' legs out from under them, taking the one achievable goal they had left and heaving it like they heaved 14 made 3-pointers for an 89-80 win, SMU would be inconsolable.
And yet there stood Moore, casually holding onto his lunch instead of looking like someone had stolen it from him.
“Devastated? Nah,’’ he said with a laugh. “We were the last undefeated team in the country. We still have only one loss on our record. I mean, you win some, you lose some. Now we get to see what we’re made of.’’
Maybe the bigger question is what will SMU now play for? Before Moore corrected the record, Larry Brown pooh-poohed the notion that his players were hunting for perfection and so he easily sideswiped a question about future motivation.
“Our motivation is to try and get better,’’ he said. “To have a successful year for our seniors. Nothing changes now with our motivation. It’s the same -- to get better.’’
Coaches, of course, can easily quantify "getting better," and with an indefinite end to their tenures, they can always look to next year as a way to reboot.
Players generally prefer more tangible goals -- wins instead of losses, long runs in the postseason instead of quick trips home. There is no March, no Selection Sunday, no shining moments for these Mustangs. There is no next year for seniors Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert.
And now there’s no pursuit of perfection -- just 11 games left and an abrupt end.
But anyone who thinks this group is going to curl up in the fetal position hasn’t been paying attention.
Whatever you might think of Brown and his trail of NCAA-scorched earth, there is no ignoring the resilience his players have shown. They have been dealt every sort of stomach punch -- from the postseason sanctions, to nine games without their head coach, to that dwindling roster, to the guy who caused all of these problems, Keith Frazier, now cutting out for North Texas -- and handled each with grace, dignity and a stunning ability to focus on the here and now.
And so when he was asked what could possibly be left to play for, Kennedy didn’t even let the question finish before he answered.
“We can still win the conference [regular season],’’ he said. “And to finish the season with one loss is still pretty good.’’
Indeed, plenty of teams, especially this year, would love the problem of getting over just one loss.
Count Temple among them. The Owls, now 11-7, are better off than SMU in that they are eligible for the NCAA tournament, but now they have to get in. This, a third win against a Top-25 team, will help bolster their résumé.
“Can you believe Temple stormed the court beating SMU?” Brown said. “Oh my God. The fifth-winningest program in America. Pretty amazing. Never thought that would ever happen.’’
Technically, "court storm" was a bit of an exaggeration.
It was more like an aggressive gathering, thanks to snow-induced crowd-thinning.
This game was originally scheduled to be played Saturday, but a blizzard dumped 30 inches of snow on Philadelphia, pushing the tipoff back to noon Sunday. With the city still digging out and mass transit all but shut down, only a small collection of die-hards showed up. Officially game attendance was listed at 6,096, but then again, officially Moore is listed at 5-foot-9.
And so, the "if a tree falls" question: If an undefeated team loses and no one is really there to see it, did the team really lose?
Alas, for SMU, the answer is yes.
There is no undefeated season left to pursue.
But to the Mustangs, there’s still plenty to play for.