DEEP IN their hearts, SMU's players knew they were already in the NCAA Tournament. But after what happened to them last season, the Mustangs were taking no chances.

Markus Kennedy scored 15 points and the regular-season American Athletic Conference champions held off UConn yesterday in Hartford, 62-54, to also win the tournament title.

Seeded sixth, they face UCLA on Thursday in Louisville in their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1993. A year ago, they were left out of the field after losing to Houston in the AAC quarterfinals.

"Sunday last year at this time was about as disappointing as it could get based on the body of work these kids did," said Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. "But fortunately we've got another opportunity and didn't have to get anybody to decide whether we're worthy or not."

Yanick Moreira and Nic Moore added 11 points each for the Mustangs (27-6). Ben Moore scored 10 points and Sterling Brown pulled down 12 rebounds.

The defending national champion Huskies (20-14) fell a game short of winning four times in 4 days and earning a trip back to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they'll go to the NIT.

Rodney Purvis scored a career-high 29 points for UConn, which became the sixth team to miss the NCAAs after winning the title the previous year since the field expanded to 64 in 1985.

In other championship games:

* At Nashville, Tenn., Willie Cauley-Stein had 15 points and 10 rebounds and No. 1 Kentucky never trailed in beating No. 21 Arkansas, 78-63, in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game.

The Wildcats (34-0) are only the fourth team to go into the NCAA Tournament undefeated since Indiana finished off the last perfect season with a title in 1976. They paired their 28th SEC Tournament title with their 46th regular-season championship.

* At Chicago, Nigel Hayes scored 25 points, Frank Kaminsky added 19 and No. 6 Wisconsin (31-3) outscored Michigan State 11-0 in overtime to win the Big Ten Tournament championship game, 80-69.

* At Brooklyn, Treveon Graham scored 20 points and Doug Brooks made a huge steal in the final minute to help VCU (26-9) beat Dayton, 71-65, and win its first Atlantic 10 Tournament championship.

* At New Orleans, R.J. Hunter, the coach's son, made two free throws with 21.6 seconds left and Georgia State (24-9) survived two last-second three-point attempts to beat Georgia Southern, 38-36, in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship game.

Georgia State coach Ron Hunter was injured during the celebration after the game and had to be helped off the court. He did return to be with his team as they continued the celebration.

Noteworthy

* St. John's suspended junior center Chris Obekpa for 2 weeks for violation of team rules.

The school announced that the suspension would include any postseason games this season until March 29.

Obekpa started 24 of 30 games for the Red Storm (21-11) this season, averaging 5.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. The 6-10 center led the Big East and ranks fifth in the country with 3.2 blocks per game.

* Former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. had intestinal surgery less than 2 weeks ago, and the school said he is recovering "beautifully."

Georgetown said in a statement the 74-year-old Hall of Famer who led the Hoyas to the 1984 national title had corrective surgery for a benign twisted intestine.