Hartford, CT (SportsNetwork.com) - Nic Moore scored 20 points and No. 20 SMU held off hot-shooting East Carolina for a 74-68 win in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Friday.
Markus Kennedy took a bump on the head but scored 15 points for top-seeded SMU (25-6), which will play Temple in Saturday's semifinals.
Larry Brown's Mustangs, who had a bye into the quarterfinals, were left out of the NCAA Tournament last year but are virtually guaranteed the program's first berth since 1993 this year after winning the regular season conference title.
SMU was ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press poll before losing to Houston in the quarterfinals of last year's AAC tournament. The Mustangs went on to make the final of the NIT, losing to Minnesota, but are hoping to take the next step this year with the program's first NCAA Tournament berth in 22 years.
Terry Whisnant and Antonio Robinson scored 18 points apiece for East Carolina (14-19), which shot 15-of-34 from 3-point range and had the game's biggest lead at 10 points in the first half.
The eighth-seeded Pirates were coming off an 81-80 win over UCF in overtime on Thursday, but lost four of their last six.
SMU didn't take the lead for good until Kennedy's layup with four minutes left in the game. Earlier in the second half, the junior forward caught a forearm to the head from ECU's Keith Armstrong and walked off the court, but returned soon after.
A key play late in the game came when an errant pass from ECU's Marshall Guilmette was stolen in the paint and Moore drained two free throws at the other end to give the Mustangs a six-point lead with about a minute remaining.
ECU started the game hot, building a 19-9 lead over the first seven minutes while making seven of its first eight shots, including five consecutive 3- pointers.
"They got off to such a good start, I think last year we probably would have packed it in, but we've matured a little bit, and I think have handled adversity much better, and I truly believe that's why we're moving on," Brown said.
But SMU scored seven in a row after that and eventually took the lead with under eight minutes to go in the first half. Moore led all players with 11 points in the half and the Mustangs led 37-32 at the break.
"We battled our tail off, we shot the ball like we needed to shoot it to have a chance," East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo said. "Our defense was really good when we didn't turn the ball over."
SMU won its first regular season title since 1993 (Southwest Conference) ... The Mustangs beat East Carolina 77-54 on Jan. 17 ... The Mustangs outrebounded the Pirates 34-27.