NEW ORLEANS — If Tulane is indeed the favorite to win the Conference USA women’s title, the Green Wave sure didn’t look like it Thursday night.
Ice-cold shooting, sloppy ball-handling and often porous defense contributed to Southern Methodist’s 62-56 victory Thursday in Devlin Fieldhouse, a deflating blow to a Tulane squad that entered C-USA play with high hopes but fell flat in the opener.
“It’s only the first game in the conference,” said senior guard Olivia Grayson, who led the squad with a season-high 17 points and six rebounds. “We can’t get down on ourselves. We still have a lot of basketball to play. We have to focus on the positives and go from here.”
Tulane coach Lisa Stockton said a lack of offensive execution by the Wave (11-3, 0-1) and a handful of questionable officiating calls gradually turned the tide in favor of SMU (10-4, 1-0).
“We just need to be more efficient on offense,” she said. “We didn’t finish in the paint. We saw some good (scoring) opportunities; we just weren’t executing them.”
SMU junior guard Keena Mays also had a little something to do with her team’s victory. She entered the game averaging nearly 25 points in SMU’s previous five contests; while Tulane was able to slow Mays early, she gradually found her groove, finishing with a game-high 27 points to go with eight rebounds and five assists.
Mays eventually ran wild, but Tulane did a solid job of reining in an SMU offense that came in averaging nearly 70 points. It took a handful of crucial communication breakdowns on defense to sink the Wave, Stockton and Grayson said.
“We lost to a good team tonight,” Stockton said. “It’s important not to get down. We have to learn from it and move on. That’s part of the battle.”
The Green Wave started well, jumping to a 12-2 lead. The early run was fueled by two 3-pointers from Grayson.
But after stone-cold shooting for the first third of the half, the Mustangs heated up from both inside and outside, reeling off a 17-3 run to take a 19-15 lead with just more than seven minutes left. The Wave regained its footing slightly, and the squads ended up trading leads for the rest of the half before Tulane settled on a 27-26 halftime edge.
In the second half, Mays picked up where she left off, and SMU regained the lead. But Grayson repeatedly bailed Tulane out, almost single-handedly keeping the Wave in the contest — particularly with timely rebounding and a key 3-pointer.
Grayson’s offensive efforts were sorely needed: Sophomore forward Whitney Bibbins, who came into the contest leading the Wave in scoring at 15.5 points per game, was slowed by an illness.
Bibbins still managed to become a factor late, getting aggressive under the basket, snaring rebounds and converting layups, including one that tied the contest at 51 with 3:33 left. Bibbins finished with nine points and five rebounds.
SMU inched to a 56-51 advantage before a Grayson drive and layup cut the gap to three with 38 seconds left. But two free throws by Mays erased Grayson’s efforts and essentially clinched the deal for SMU as Tulane was forced to foul.
After the game, Grayson didn’t realize she had become the first player in program history to move into the top 10 in career points, rebounding, assists and steals.
When told of her accomplishment, Grayson tried to manage a weak smile but couldn’t. She said she and her teammates need to focus on what preseason pundits said they were headed for — the C-USA crown.
“It’s still early in conference play,” she said. “We just have some things we need to fix.”
The Green Wave visit Marshall on Sunday.