If the Tigers proved nothing else Sunday afternoon at FedExForum, they showed that they could beat a team wearing orange on their home floor. (The last four Memphis home defeats: Texas, Syracuse, and Tennessee twice.) After a somewhat sluggish start — the Tigers led merely 19-17 at the 10:26 mark of the first half — the U of M went on a 33-8 scoring binge before halftime to hand the Huskies their 12th loss in 13 games. Roburt Sallie led the Tigers with a season-high 20 points, while Elliot Williams added 15 points and eight assists. Sallie and Willie Kemp combined to hit seven of 12 three-point attempts.
Playing in only its third season of Division I basketball, HBU looked overmatched in terms of size and quickness. The Tigers forced 26 turnovers, blocked 14 shots and outrebounded the Huskies, 47-35.
Coming three days after a deflating loss to Tennessee, the game served as a confidence builder for Memphis as the team prepares to face fifth-ranked Syracuse on Wednesday. “We were focused on ball pressure,” said Williams after the game. “Making them turn the ball over. We’re trying to fine-tune our offense and defense. It helped that they played a zone, because Syracuse will.”
Williams was happy to see Sallie find a comfort zone with his long-distance shooting. “Rob’s a great shooter, like I’ve been saying all season. He’s gonna go through slumps, like everyone. But he just has to keep shooting. All of us are going to have to shoot well for us to succeed.”
“Shooting’s going to come,” added Sallie. “I’ve been shooting dreadfully this season, but I hit some shots today, and I’m pretty sure it’ll start to pick up for me. That’s one thing Coach [Josh Pastner] keeps telling me, that he’s not worried about my shooting. I needed this game for my confidence. I’ll probably get some good looks against Syracuse [noted for their zone defense].”
This was the last cupcake game the Tigers will play this season. They’ve spent the first two months of the campaign ruling the kiddie pool, pushing around the likes of Tennessee Tech, Central Arkansas, and Montana State, while bowing to the only opponents familiar with the deep end: Kansas, Massachusetts, and Tennessee. The water gets considerably deeper Wednesday night, when the Orange — that color again — will be looking to clean up things after losing its first game of the season (to Pitt) in its last outing.
Now halfway to their 10th consecutive 20-win season, the Tigers will focus on the variable that jumps out most consistently in their postgame shat sheets. “Our priority, going into every game is rebounding,” added Sallie. “Because we’re smaller, we don’t have a lot of numbers. That’s our main issue. If we rebound, we win. Every game this season has come down to rebounding.”
“We won the rebound battle, even though we were down 19-18 at the half,” said Pastner. “I told them at halftime, for any rebound that they get over us, we’ll run a deep-six tomorrow [at practice]. But we came out and won that battle. This will give us some good momentum as we enter a really, really tough matchup Wednesday.”