American Conference player of the year Nic Moore scored 20 points and the top-seeded Mustangs (25-6) held off East Carolina 74-68 Friday in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference. Markus Kennedy, the league's sixth man of the year, added 15 points and six rebounds.
SMU lost to Houston in their opening game of the 2014 AAC and ended up as runner-ups in the NIT. This year, the Mustangs were tied with the eighth-seeded Pirates at 64 with 4 1/2 minutes left.
But SMU closed the game on a 10-4 run, hitting eight free throws down the stretch to win their first conference tournament game in nine years.
"I think last year we probably would have packed it in," said Larry Brown, the Mustangs' Hall-of-Fame head coach. "But we've matured a little bit, and I think have handled adversity much better."
Terry Whisnant and Antonio Robinson each had 18 points for East Carolina, which made 15 of its 35 3-point shots, but missed its last six attempts from behind the arc. The Pirates finish the season at 14-18.
"We got good looks and as a coach, I think that's what you want," said East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo. "We knew coming in that we would have to shoot a lot of 3s to win this game."
East Carolina's first six shots Friday were all from 3-point range and they made five of them, taking an early 19-9 lead while holding SMU to 4 of 14 shooting during that span.
SMU responded with a 19-3 run, taking a 28-22 lead on a Cannen Cunningham layup. Moore had 11 first-half points and SMU scored 15 points on eight Pirate turnovers to take a 37-32 lead into the half.
SMU led by seven points after the opening bucket of the second half.
But East Carolina went on a 16-5 run, taking a 48-44 lead on one of Robinson's four 3-pointers.
Moore responded with a 3-pointer that sparked a 10-0 run for the Mustangs, who retook the lead on a dunk by Ben Moore.
But ECU stayed in the game by hitting 3-pointers.
An 11-2 run, featuring 3s from Robinson, Paris Campbell and Whisnant put them back on top 62-61.
ECU was 11 of 30 from 3-point range during the team's first meeting, a 77-54 SMU victory.
Kennedy put the Mustangs up for good with a conventional 3-point play that made it 67-64. The league's sixth man of the year hit two more to push the lead to 69-64 after drawing the fifth foul on ECU's Marshal Guilmette.
"They came out making shots," said SMU guard Ryan Manuel, who hit four of his five shots to finish with eight points. "They had nothing to lose and I think we just stuck with it and after the game we came out with the win."
SMU had 17 second-chance points and forced 15 East Carolina turnovers.
East Carolina lost three of its last four regular-season games heading into the tournament and needed overtime Thursday to beat UCF by a point.
SMU: The Mustangs dominated inside, outscoring ECU 44-16 in the paint, and 17-2 on second-chance opportunities. ...The Mustangs only loss in their last eight games came on this court two weeks ago to UConn.
EAST CAROLINA: The Pirates had won four of their last six meetings with SMU, but lost their only regular-season matchup this year by 23 points. Pirates coach Jeff Lebo played for SMU's Larry Brown when Brown coached the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.
QUOTEABLE: Jeff Lebo on his team's 3-point shooting: "As a shooter myself, I don't know why they miss or why they make. I wish I knew that, I'd be doing something else, probably."
SMU: Plays winner of Friday's quarterfinal matchup between Temple and Memphis.
East Carolina: Season over.