No. 22 SMU had its first league title in 22 years after rallying past Tulsa 67-62 on Sunday in a game that decided the American Athletic Conference regular-season championship.
And maybe Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown and the Mustangs can rest a little easier about the NCAA tournament a year after getting snubbed and reaching the NIT championship game, losing to Minnesota.
"No, no, no. No way," senior Cannen Cunningham said with a smile after cutting off the question. "I still believe we should have got in last year. The only guarantee is to win this tournament coming up, so that's what we have on our plate right now."
That would be the AAC tournament in Hartford, Connecticut, starting Friday for the Mustangs (24-6, 15-3).
In the meantime, the resume is at least a little stronger thanks to Kennedy scoring 12 of his 16 points after halftime and Moore pitching in 14 and several big baskets and free throws to help the Mustangs come back from six points down early in the second half.
SMU is looking for its first NCAA berth since winning the old Southwest Conference in 1993.
"We better get in the NCAA," said Brown, whose team was the only one of the top five in the AAC that didn't get in last year after finishing in a three-way tie for third that included eventual national champ Connecticut. "I didn't politick last year. But if we don't get in, there's something wrong."
James Woodard scored all of his career-high 30 points on 3-pointers for the Golden Hurricane (21-9, 14-4), who settled for second place after starting 10-0 in their AAC debut but finishing 4-4 under first-year coach Frank Haith.
"It was a high-level game," Haith said. "A lot of physical play, and our guys held up against a bigger, more athletic, physical team."
Kennedy had a three-point play that put SMU ahead for good at 44-41, nodding slowly after the basket to a slightly smaller student contingent at Moody Coliseum, which was still loud despite the start of spring break and had a frequent visitor courtside in former President George W. Bush.
Looking for a ninth straight win in Dallas in a streak dating to when the schools were in Conference USA together, Tulsa stayed close until the final seconds thanks to Woodard, who finished 10 of 16 from long range. His last 3 pulled Tulsa within 65-62 with 8 seconds remaining before Kennedy made two free throws and Woodard's final try from several feet behind the arc missed the rim.
"I came into this game just focused, just ready to play," said Woodard, whose previous career high was 28 against LSU on Nov. 11, 2012. "The championship was on the line. Just trying to play to win."
Asked how significant this title was for him, Brown again brought up Dean Smith, who died Feb. 9. Brown played and coached under Smith at North Carolina before both went on to Hall of Fame careers. "Every time you do something that's special, you know you realize how much he had a part of it," the 74-year-old Brown said. "I think I appreciate things a lot more now than maybe three weeks ago."
TULSA TOURNAMENT TALK
While SMU's spot in NCAA does appear safe, Tulsa might have to win the AAC tournament to assure a berth despite getting so close to winning the regular-season title. "I do think there's a little bit of an eye test and hopefully the committee is watching the game," Haith said. "And I think there's two teams that deserve to play in the NCAA Tournament out there today."
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane dropped to 0-4 against ranked teams, including two losses to SMU. The first loss to the Mustangs came after the 10-0 conference start. ... Shaquille Harrison was Tulsa's other double-figure scorer with 10 points and he added nine assists.
SMU: Cunningham, one of five seniors honored before his final home game, had 12 points and 12 rebounds, while Sterling Brown had eight points and eight rebounds. ... Moore was one of four SMU players with three assists.
Tulsa: As No. 2 seed, will play Houston-Tulane winner in AAC tournament quarterfinals Friday.
SMU: As top seed, will play UCF-East Carolina winner in AAC quarterfinals Friday.
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