DALLAS (AP) — Central Florida stayed in the game long after SMU’s bid for an early blowout in yet another home win.
The Knights just never could get within scaring distance.
Markus Kennedy had 18 points and eight rebounds, Nic Moore scored 11 of his 13 in the second half and the No. 23 Mustangs took another step toward their first NCAA tournament berth in 21 years with a 70-55 win over the Knights on Saturday.
“We just hung around and we could never make that separation,” said Central Florida coach Donnie Jones, who days earlier had watched his team wipe out a late 15-point deficit in a win over Rutgers. “We just had a hard time really getting stops down the stretch.”
Isaiah Sykes matched Kennedy with 18 points to lead the Knights.
The Mustangs (23-6, 12-4 American Athletic) improved to 15-0 at home in their first game as a ranked team at Moody Coliseum in almost 30 years. But coach Larry Brown and his players weren’t exactly thrilled over the 15-point win.
“This ranking doesn’t mean anything to me right now,” Brown said. “I’m proud of the fact that we’re in the top 25 in a lot of people’s eyes, but we’ve got a lot of things ahead of us and a lot of great opportunities. And we’ve got to do better than we did today.”
The last nine home wins have come at newly renovated Moody, going into SMU’s final home game Wednesday night against seventh-ranked Louisville. The Cardinals lost to No. 21 Memphis 72-66 on Saturday.
The Mustangs expected to go into their big home finale with a more convincing win, particularly considering they ran out to an 18-4 lead. UCF (11-16, 3-13) was still within nine in the final 7 minutes three days after wiping out a 15-point deficit in a win over Rutgers.
“It’s March, you know,” said SMU’s Nick Russell, who scored 10 points in less than 9 minutes to start the game and finished with 15. “So we should have things down pat. It should be like clockwork and that’s why it’s a letdown.”
Moore, who also had game highs with six assists and four steals, had consecutive 3-pointers for a 45-27 lead with 13:53 remaining, pumping his arms wildly as he stomped up the court with a loud roar from the sixth sellout crowd since Moody reopened in January.
“Nic Moore made the difference,” Jones said. “His two big 3s were huge. Obviously, Markus Kennedy and him are a mismatch for a lot of teams. You can play out of the post of you can play out of the perimeter.”
The win came in SMU’s first home game as a ranked team since March 9, 1985, when the Mustangs lost to Arkansas 68-55. Their last home win as a ranked team was a day before that loss.
The Mustangs entered the rankings three weeks ago for the first time since the 1984-85 season, but dropped out the next week after a loss at South Florida, which started the day tied with UCF for second-to-last in the AAC.
SMU returned to the poll after beating then-No. 21 Connecticut last weekend to improve to 4-1 against ranked teams, and there was never much doubt that the Mustangs would avoid another bad loss Saturday.
UCF cut its deficit to 10 with a 9-1 run capped by a layup from Sykes, but never could get closer than nine in the last 7 minutes.
UCF shot less than 20 percent for most of the first half before warming up and getting within 25-21 on a 3-pointer by Kasey Wilson, who had a chance to make it a one-point game but missed from beyond the arc at the top of the key.
Cannen Cunningham and Ryan Manuel, a pair of backups averaging five points per game, combined to score SMU’s last nine points of the half and rebuild the lead to 11.
Cunningham had the first five points, including a three-point play after he ended up with the ball at the end of a wild scramble. Manuel, who finished with 10 points, hit two free throws and a jumper.
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