Markus Kennedy had 21 points, including the clinching three-point play, and SMU rallied from 13 down in the second half to beat Clemson 65-59 Tuesday night, sending Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown into the NIT championship game in his old backyard.
Nic Moore added 13 points and Nick Russell scored 10 for the Mustangs (27-9), who will play Minnesota or Florida State for the title Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. Brown, the only head coach to win both an NCAA and NBA championship, now has a chance to add the National Invitation Tournament to his extensive resume.
The 73-year-old Brown, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in nearby Long Beach, is old enough to remember when the NIT was the premier college basketball tournament around. He has directed quite a turnaround in two seasons at SMU, snubbed by the NCAA tourney on Selection Sunday.
By all accounts, the Mustangs were one of the final schools left out of the 68-team field. But they were given a No. 1 seed in the NIT and have taken full advantage of it with four straight wins — three on their home court.
Rod Hall had 18 points and five assists for third-seeded Clemson (23-13), still looking for its first NIT crown after three trips to the semifinals. High-flying forward K.J. McDaniels, the team's leading scorer at 17.2 points per game, was held to 11 on 4-of-11 shooting.
Landry Nnoko and Damarcus Harrison each scored 10 for the Tigers.
Harrison had all his points on perfect shooting in the first half, when Clemson shot 56 percent — including 6 of 9 from 3-point range. But he went 0 for 5 and Hall was 1 of 6 as the Mustangs buckled down after halftime, harassing the Tigers into 6-for-25 shooting (24 percent).
Meanwhile, the Mustangs went 13 for 22 (59 percent) in the second half after shooting 37 percent in the first 20 minutes. Kennedy shot 8 for 13 overall and finished with nine rebounds, four fouls and three steals in 24 minutes.
SMU trailed 41-28 early in the second half but erased the deficit with a 17-4 spurt as chants of "SMU! SMU!" rang out in the Garden. Russell's 3-pointer tied it at 45 with 10:30 left, and a jumper 5 minutes later by Moore tied it again at 53.
Kennedy made a steal at midcourt and was fouled driving to the basket. He made two free throws with 5:09 remaining to give SMU its first lead, 55-53.
After a free throw by Moore, two foul shots from Hall trimmed the deficit to 56-55. Kennedy then scored in the lane before McDaniels dunked on a baseline drive to make it 58-57 with 21 seconds to go.
Russell drained two free throws before Hall did the same, leaving the score 60-59 with 8.2 seconds left. That's when Kennedy got free behind the Clemson press and took in a home run pass from Moore for a layup. Kennedy was fouled on the play and hit the free throw to make it 63-59 with 7.2 seconds left.
Moore added two foul shots for the final margin.
Two days after Connecticut advanced to the NCAA Final Four on the same court, Madison Square Garden hosted another set of tournament games between college teams thinking championship.
SMU, which beat the Huskies twice this season in the American Athletic Conference, went 18-1 at home — including 12 wins in renovated Moody Coliseum. But the Mustangs weren't as successful on the road, and early on Tuesday they didn't look nearly as comfortable in the Big Apple as their coach.
Turnovers on SMU's first three possessions helped the Tigers open a quick eight-point lead before Brown called a timeout. A dunk by McDaniels midway through the first half started a 9-0 run for Clemson, which ended the period on a 19-8 surge.
Brown, calmly sipping a bottle of water in the opening minutes, was up off the bench screaming at Russell after a turnover with just more than a minute to go in the first half.
Harrison hit a 3-pointer with a second remaining to send the Tigers into the locker room with a 38-26 advantage. Hall also was perfect from the field and the foul line in the first half.