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AAC Tournament: Houston upsets No. 25 SMU

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Houston pulled off an upset in the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Thursday as the Cougars held off No. 25 SMU, 68-64, during quarterfinal action in Memphis.

Houston trailed SMU, 38-29, at the half, but came surging back in the second half behind strong performances from TaShawn Thomas, Jherrod Stiggers and L.J. Rose.

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Thomas’ crucial blocked shot with under a minute left thwarted the Mustangs’ last-ditch effort to stay in the game when SMU was trailing by three and looking for a quick two to cut the Houston lead to one.

The junior forward finished 14 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and four assists in a tremendous overall effort. Stiggers paced Houston with 19 points while Rose (16 points) and Danual House (11 points) also finished in double-figures for the surging Cougars.

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Houston (17-15) has now won five of its last six games and is a dangerous semifinal team in the AAC Tournament. The No. 6 seed Cougars advance to face the winner of the game between No. 7 seed Rutgers and No. 2 seed Louisville on Friday at 7:00 p.m.

SMU struggled down the stretch, as they shot 40 percent (20-for-50) from the field and missed a couple of free throws that would have cut Houston’s lead in the final minutes. Sophomore center Markus Kennedy (13 points) missed two free throws with the Mustangs trailing by three with 1:37 left and Houston scored on its ensuing offensive possession to effectively put the game away.

Junior center Cannen Cunningham led SMU with 14 points while guard Nick Russell added 10. Sophomore point guard Nic Moore struggled to an o-for-9 shooting day from the field as he finished with eight points and eight assists.

SMU (23-9) has now lost three consecutive games entering the NCAA Tournament as Larry Brown’s team has struggled since a March 1st win over Central Florida.

Battle 4 Atlantis title proves Syracuse will be relevant this season

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Michael Gbinije scored 20 points and Trevor Cooney added 15 points and five assists as Syracuse left the Bahamas with a title, beating No. 25 Texas A&M 74-67 in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

I guess it’s time to start taking the Orange seriously.

There’s a lot to like about this group. Gbinije and Cooney are both fifth-year seniors that not only understand how to operate at the top of the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim runs, but they both have developed into versatile offensive weapons. Cooney was known as nothing more than a jump-shooter when he arrived up north, but he’s now averaging 3.5 assists on the season.

And Gbinije?

He has been one of the best players in the country through the first two weeks of the season. Through six games, he’s averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.0 boards and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Freshman Malachi Richardson, who had 16 points in the win over A&M, has scored double-figures in all six games this season while another freshman, Tyler Lydon, was against terrific on Friday, finishing with 13 points and eight boards. He’s now shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.

And that’s where this team is going to do the majority of their damage this season.

Through six games, they’re shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the three wins in the Bahamas, the Orange knocked were 34-for-73 from beyond the arc, a 46.5 percent clip. The question isn’t whether or not that rate can continue — four of the six players that saw action on Friday are dangerous three-point shooters while the other two, Tyler Roberson  and DaJuan Coleman, aren’t going to be shooting threes — but what happens on the nights where the threes aren’t going down.

There are going to be nights where they shoot 5-for-25 instead of 11-for-25. Will they have enough firepower then? Will their defense be good enough? Will guys like Roberson and Coleman be able to supply a scoring punch? Will Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson attack the paint instead of settling for jumpers?

Because at the very least, these three games in the Bahamas have proven that the Orange are going to be relevant this season, even in the loaded ACC. Whether that means they’re going to push for a top four finish or simply end the year as a tournament team remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Jim Boeheim has himself a squad Upstate.

No. 10 Gonzaga outlasts No. 18 UConn despite late offensive struggles

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No. 10 Gonzaga survived a furious rally from No. 18 UConn to win the third place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, 73-70.

The Zags were up by as much as 21 points early in the second half, leading 48-27, but UConn slowly chipped away at the lead. Kyle Wiltjer led four players in double-figures with 17 points while Eric McClellan added 15 points, making a number of key plays in the second half when it looked like the Zags were in danger of giving away the lead.

As good as Gonzaga looked in the first 22 minutes of this game — and they looked really, really good — the second half exposed the concerns that many had with this group entering the season. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who both shot around 40 percent from beyond the arc and started for four years, graduated, meaning that Gonzaga’s point guard situation is, more or less, Josh Perkins.

Perkins was terrific in the second half of a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday. He played 17 foul-plagued minutes against UConn. When UConn’s defense ratcheted up during the second half, Gonzaga struggled finding a way to consistently get good shots on the offensive end. Part of that was due to ineffective point guard play and part of it was a result of not really having anyone on the offensive end that can create a look on their own. As skilled as Wiltjer is, his impact can be limited when pick-and-pop actions aren’t working and he’s getting doubled in the post.

Perkins is talented, but this is essentially his first season of college basketball; he was a medical redshirt last season after breaking his jaw last November. There are going to be ups-and-downs, and that’s problematic on a team where he is essentially the only point guard on the roster.

The good news?

Gonzaga beat a good UConn team on a day when their best players struggled in crunch-time. It was McClellan and Kyle Dranginis that made the big plays down the stretch, not the big names on the Gonzaga roster.