DALLAS -- They have the Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown, the hashtag #MoodyMagic and the catchphrase Pony Up. They have the record, 23-6, the No. 18 ranking and the raucous crowd, 7,000 strong and sold out. The final thing Southern Methodist University needs to put the finishing touches on another wildly successful Larry Brown reclamation project is a signature regular-season win over Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals
At the start of the season, the game had little appeal outside Dallas and Louisville beyond Brown and Pitino going head-to-head. But on this night, with both HOF coaches boasting top-20 teams, and the conference tournament and NCAA tournament looming, it’s a de facto playoff game, with SMU trying to justify its newly elite status, and Louisville trying to hold onto its.
There's a feeling you get before big college basketball games that can't be mimicked in other sports. Unlike monstrous football stadiums or sprawling baseball fields, a college basketball crowd is one of the few sports arenas that actually feels crowded; claustrophobic even.
For a game of this magnitude, when the student body and the alumni and the casual fans and the bandwagon fans all know that it's The Game, against the defending national champions, the buzz has buzz.
George W. Bush is in attendance this Wednesday night; so are Troy Aikman and Tony Romo.
The only thing this crowd needs to spark an explosion is a monstrous dunk at the outset, which is exactly what it gets from Forward Markus Kennedy. Kennedy is 6-9, 250 pounds and looks like one of the guys that NFL scouts now drool over to play tight end. He rips the ball through the rim and the crowd launches into a frenzy.
On the next play, SMU gets a steal, which leads to a bucket by Shawn Williams, and in less than 30 seconds the fans in Moody Coliseum are going ballistic -- though the noise level is still not loud enough to drown out Rick Pitino laying into Russ Smith and the rest of the squad.
Southern Methodist keeps up its blistering pace and jumps out to a double digit lead. Every shot, every steal, every foul, the fans explode. It’s like they’ve been watching their pitcher in the ninth with bases loaded and a full count since tip-off.
Despite the fairly similar resumes of Pitino and Brown -- both have won NCAA championships, both have coached multiple NBA teams, including the Knicks, both bounced from college, to the NBA, then back, then back again -- their styles could not be more different.
Pitino patrols the sideline, either with his arms crossed or gesticulating wildly at his players (mainly Russ Smith) or at the refs. When he’s not using his hands as glasses to tell the refs to watch the game, he's stomping and pacing and tossing his arms up in total disbelief at nearly every call against his team.
Larry Brown alternates between sitting motionless on the bench and standing up to fire a frustrated look at one of his guys for missing a rotation or making a poor pass.
Maybe it's his overall calm or maybe it's the way he carries himself, but Brown somehow appears younger than Pitino, even though he's 73 and Pitino is 61.
As the game heads to halftime, the Cardinals have clamped down on defense and cut the lead to two. By halftime, the game is tied.
The sixth straight sellout crowd here in University Park knows they’re in a dogfight as the teams head to the locker room.
SMU starts the second half with the fury of the first, but this time Louisville won't let them get any distance. Louisville guard Chris Jones keeps knocking down shots, including going 4-7 from three up to this point. With each back and forth, the crowd continues to pulsate, getting louder and louder. The arena DJ cleverly reserves the Seven Nation Army inspired chants to a minimum, letting the crowd’s actual energy flood the floor.
Five minutes into the second half, Louisville is up 3. Ten minutes in, the Cardinals are up 7.
Then, after a stoppage in play, an SMU chant, a Moody Magic chant, and a crucial blocking call on Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell that leads to an and-one and a tie score, the crowd takes it to the next level.
At about the eight minute mark, Keith Frazier, SMU's slim 6-5 guard playing in his hometown, knocks down one of the most important threes in the school’s recent memory, causing the arena to officially enter Rock Concert mode. The little kids that are in attendance cover their ears. The old people do too. Metallica would be proud.
And then, Russ Smith, the target of so many of Pitino’s sideline screams, harnesses the hostile crowd and calmly drains two clutch jumpers, then feeds Harrell for a key dunk.
Just like that, the Cardinals are up 8 with 5:30 left.
SMU needs a rally. The crowd is doing everything in its power to will a run. Nobody is sitting. The visions of the "SMU Slays Louisville" headlines across the sports media landscape are still alive.
The conversations during the timeout in the student sections are still about how high they could climb in the rankings if they beat Louisville and then do well in their conference tournament.
"We'd be a three or four seed in March Madness,” one kid says.
"Four for sure,” another says.
And then Russ Smith hits another three. Then a jump-step two. Then Louisville is up ten with 3:34 left.
SMU calls a timeout. Russ Smith comes out of it and hits a long two to put his team up 12.
The air is slowly leaving the building and the dream of the monster upset, the major media play and the momentum heading into mid-March is slowly dissipating.
All of a sudden, the stadium music operator is blasting every new-age Jock Jam cheer through the speakers to fire up a crowd that 20 minutes ago was blowing the roof off this place.
It's not working.
The loss is starting to feel inevitable.
Russ Smith's dominance is on full display with another assist.
His stat line with two minutes left tells the whole story of the second half: 26 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, while going 6-6 on three-pointers. It’s tough to beat a shooter on that kind of roll.
In a testament to the SMU fans here for the last game of the season, very few people have left.
It's Senior Night tonight, and it’s clear that win or lose, the fans want to let Larry Brown and their beloved Mustangs know how much they appreciate them when the buzzer sounds, and it's 84-71 Louisville.
And finally, it happens. The game ends and the fans rain down a "Thank You, Seniors!” chant, followed by a standing ovation.
The American Athletic Conference tournament still awaits, with March Madness after that.
The miracle season could still have a miracle finish.
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.
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