SMU’s Ojeleye Taking Full Advantage of New Basketball Opportunity

The view from the Madison Square Garden press box before the 2k Classic (Photo credit: Patrick Ralph)
Madison Square Garden before the 2k Classic on Thursday (The Ink/Patrick Ralph)

Southern Methodist University (SMU) redshirt Semi Ojeleye hasn’t played basketball regularly in almost two years. As the junior forward is getting his opportunity to shine, Ojeleye has been making his mark through three games with the Mustangs, including Thursday’s meet up with the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt).

Behind Ojeleye’s team-high 24 points, SMU ran by Pitt 76-67 in the first game of the annual 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden. The win improved the Mustangs to 3-0 on the early season.

Ojeleye started the game off slow, scoring only four points on 2-of-7 shooting in the first half. But Ojeleye got hot in the second half, putting up 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting to push SMU to victory over the Pitt Panthers. Behind Ojeleye, the offense took off in the second half as the team shot 57 percent from the field after the intermission.

“I just stayed confident,” Ojeleye said after the win. During intermission, he said, “nothing changed in the locker room. Everybody just acted like it was normal, so I didn’t think about what the stats were. I just kept going with the same stuff that I just tried to do in the first half. I think I just hit a few more shots.”

To no surprise, Ojeleye is thrilled to be back on the court.

“It’s been great,” said Ojeleye. “Just the confidence the coaches have in me and my teammates, that really helps me play well. The system we have in about sharing the ball and that’s why I get good shots.”

Through three games, Ojeleye is leading the team in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds.

“He’s a really good player,” Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings said about Ojeleye after the game. “He can shoot it. He can drive it and shoot off the dribble. He’s a very good player and a tough player to guard.”

Pitt senior forward Michael Young agreed. “He’s an extremely athletic player,” said Young, who led the Panthers in scoring with 22 points. “We knew that coming into this game, and he got it going in the second half.”

Coming out of high school in 2013, Ojeleye was, according to most rankings, a top-40 basketball recruit and committed to Duke. After appearing in a few games during his freshman year with the Blue Devils, Ojeleye fell out of Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzweski’s rotation during his sophomore season.

The move prompted Ojeleye to look for opportunities elsewhere. He settled on SMU in Dallas, which clearly seems to be a good fit.

After transferring from Duke to SMU in early 2015, Ojeleye had to sit out the previous two years due to NCAA transfer rules and redshirting what would have been his junior year.

“Semi is one of the most outstanding young men you could ever be around in your entire life,” said SMU head coach Tim Jankovich after the game. “He’s arguably the hardest worker away from practice time in terms of the time he puts in. He’s a machine.”

Ojeleye wasn’t the only star for the Mustangs Thursday night. Senior forward Ben Moore finished with 12 points, while sophomore guard Shake Milton poured in 14 points and led SMU with five assists on the night.

SMU dominated Pitt around the rim all night, outscoring the Panthers 38-26 in the paint and outrebounding Pitt 37-30. Defensively, SMU forced Pitt into 13 turnovers and held the Panthers to only one made three-pointer in the second half after allowing Pitt to shoot 42 percent from behind the three-point line before halftime.

“Tonight I thought we just won out on some grit,” said Jankovich, who is in his first season as head coach of the Mustangs. “We had some foul trouble and some young guys in so that didn’t help us. But I think there’s going to be different ways we win, and they are a lot of fun to coach.”

SMU will play the University of Michigan in the 2K Classic championship game at the world’s most famous arena on Friday. In the second game of Thursday’s doubleheader, the Wolverines rolled by Marquette University 79-61 to remain undefeated this season.