New York, NY – If SMU is to continue building its upward assent in the American Athletic Conference this season, it will have to do it without retired Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown and graduated stars Nic Moore and Marcus Kennedy.
Guided from the sidelines by new Coach Tim Jankovich, who brings with him a winning record from previous head coaching stints at Illinois State and North Texas, and led on the court by Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye, the Mustangs rallied from a halftime deficit to defeat Pittsburgh 76-67 on Thursday night in an opening round game of the 2K Classic held in Madison Square Garden. The victory propelled the Mustangs into Friday night’s championship game against Michigan, a 79-61 winner over Marquette in the tournament’s nightcap game.
After a pedestrian first half that saw him score four points on 2-of-7 shooting, Ojeleye exploded for 20 second half points in helping SMU pull away for the win, its third in a row to open the season.
Ojeleye is a powerfully build, 6-7, 235 pound wing with a versatile skill set that plays beyond the three-point line, in the mid-range and at the rim. He showed off his long range shooting ability by knocking down 2-of-5 shots three-pointers. Inside the arc, Ojeleye connected on 7-of-12 shots shooting mostly from 15 feet and in and demonstrated highlight reel athleticism early in the second half by climbing the ladder to catch a lob pass and flushing it home with meaning.
Ojeleye transferred to SMU from Duke halfway through his sophomore season of 2014-15. He sat out the second half of that season, all of the 2015-16 season and started the 2016-17 season not having played a collegiate game in over 20 months. Judging by the 24-point performance he put on Pittsburgh and the 22 point per game average he carried into the Pittsburgh game, fighting through the rust will not be an issue.
“Semi is one of the most outstanding young men you can be around,” said Jankovich. “He is arguably the hardest worker I’ve been around. You can set the clock on this guy getting into the gym. I’m a big believer in you building confidence in the gym. He deserves everything he will get.””
Ojeleye said he kept to his game plan in the second half. “I tried to stay confident in the second half and keep doing the stuff I tried to do in the first half,” he said. “I felt great. Our coaches and my teammates have a lot of confidence in me.”
While SMU wasn’t quite sure how Ojeleye would respond to a new team after a long layoff, it felt pretty good about the continued development of 6-6 combination guard Shake Milton, a sophomore building on a strong freshman season that saw him shoot at highly efficient clips of 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from behind the arc in averaging 10.5 points per game.
Milton directed the SMU attack against Pittsburgh with a steady hand, assisting on five baskets without a turnover. He attacked the basket with a quick and long first step. Defenders who gave him a big cushion attempting to take away the drive ran the risk of Milton rising up to shoot from distance, where he knocked down two of five shots from behind the three-point line.
Jankovich said he prepared his team to limit the performances of star Pittsburgh seniors Michael Young and Jamel Artis. “Our game plan was pretty simple…contain two high level players (Young and Artis) and don’t let them have a big night,” said Jankovich through a laugh. He was looking at the box score at the time and reading the impressive lines scores of Young and Artis, who led Pittsburgh with 22 and 20 points respectively.
The Panthers may have come up short at the end, but Young and Artis took advantage of the big stage that is Madison Square Garden to show off their considerable skills.
Young connected on half of his 12 field goal attempts and 10-of-12 free throw attempts in scoring his 22 points. His eight rebounds tied him for game high. At 6-9 with a high-cut body and good length, Young flashed a versatile inside/outside game. He scores by attacking the rim off the bounce and backing down shorter defenders. He can score over both shoulders out of a post up, turning over his left shoulder to shoot a jump hook and over his right shoulder to shoot a jump shot.
Young played high school ball not far away in New Jersey and said playing in the Garden was special. “I love it,” he said. “It’s a historic gym. The lighting, the court..it’s real special.”
At 6-7, Artis spent a majority of his time running the point for the Panthers and impressed Pittsburgh Coach Kevin Stallings. “Jamel has been plenty good in the (point guard) role,” said Stallings. “We’ve just got to get ourselves in situations to where what Jamel does well is more of an advantage for us and he certainly got to the basket, scored and did some things tonight.”
Artis attacked the basket with straight line and change of direction drives. He crossed over his defender one time to get to the basket and used a spin dribble to create separation from his defender another time to open up a jump shot at the free throw line. A right hand dominant player, Artis can also drive the ball to his left and finish with his left hand.
Cameron Johnson, a 6-8 wing, finished third to Young and Artis on the Panthers scoring chart with nine points. But those nine points came on three three-point shots in the first seven minutes of the game. Without more scoring punch from their teammates, Young and Artis could not carry the Pittsburgh scoring burden by themselves.
An interesting story line to the game was the coaching match-up between Stallings and Jankovich. Jankovich spent three seasons as an assistant to Stallings, then the coach at Vanderbilt. “Kevin and I have been tremendous friends for years and years,” said Jankovich. “I’m talking about a lot of years. We talk a lot of basketball, spend a lot of time together and I have so much respect for him. He has such a great, natural feel for the game.”
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can subscribe to our RSS feed from the upper right corner of our home page, follow us on Facebook, or on twitter.
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