When or if the Tigers ever land a spot in a BCS conference, here’s hoping the U of M brass finds a way to retain an annual game with UAB. It may not be Memphis-Louisville, but the Tigers and Blazers historically play games that make college basketball the spectacle it still can be. Tonight’s tilt at FedExForum is likely the best game Memphis fans will see this winter, and every bit as good as most Big East, ACC, or Pac 10 affairs.
After 31 lead changes — read that again, 31 lead changes — the Tigers pulled away over the last four minutes to give the Blazers only their fourth loss of the season (against 18 wins), and second straight in C-USA play. Memphis is now tied with UAB at 6-2 in C-USA, a game behind Tulsa and UTEP (playing Houston tonight in El Paso).
The Tigers trailed at the half, 32-31, but enjoyed the last of 21 second-half lead changes for their 16th win of the season. (Read that again: 21 second-half lead changes.) Wesley Witherspoon led the way for Memphis with a career-high 29 points, followed by Elliot Williams with 25. (The two combined to make 15 of 23 shots from the field and 23 of 26 free throws.) Williams add seven assists in what he called the team’s biggest win of the season.
“By far,” stressed Williams. “That was a must-win. UAB was at the top of the league. That was a huge win for us, it was a tough game. You have to play hard and stay poised in games like this. We were up seven at one point, then they went on a run and we were down.”
Williams noted some adjustments coach Josh Pastner made at halftime. “We changed defenses three or four times,” he noted. “We even ran a triangle-and-two for a while.”
Will Coleman came off the bench and had his best game of the season with nine rebounds and a game-changing seven blocked shots. He rejected a dunk attempt by the Blazers’ Howard Crawford with just under two minutes left in the game and the Tigers up by four points. And the ball was well above the rim.
“I’m a shot blocker,” said Coleman. “That’s my job, in my job description. You go out there, play your hardest, and have fun. We just took an ‘L’ [Saturday at SMU] and that doesn’t sit good with us. We had to come out and hit ’em in the mouth. All credit to UAB, they’re a real talented team. But we got the first lick and came away with a win.”
The Tigers managed to score 85 points against a team leading C-USA in defense with an average of 59.9 points allowed per game. And they seemed fueled by the atmosphere of 16,518 fans familiar with one of the country’s most underrated rivalries. When Williams delivered a behind-the-back pass to Doneal Mack for a breakaway dunk that sealed the victory, the roof was just about raised.
“We won the 50-50 battles,” emphasized Pastner. “We scrapped and clawed and found ways to come up with key balls and key possessions. The crowd was amazing. We’ve had close games all season long. But we’re getting progressively better in late-game situations.”
Witherspoon apologized to the media for some comments he made on Facebook in the aftermath of the SMU loss. But Pastner was effusive in praising the sophomore’s performance tonight. “Wesley was a tough match-up out there tonight. You know, this is really Wesley’s freshman season. Last year, he really didn’t play. Got injured, came back, and didn’t play. There are going to be ups and downs. We thought he’d turned a corner, but then he really didn’t play his best against Marshall or SMU. Then tonight, to his credit, it wasn’t about talking. It was action.”