Fun game in Birmingham tonight. (The Tigers have their problems playing at Southern Miss, and East Carolina is overlooked when it comes to grading "hostile arenas." But there's no heat like that at Bartow Arena for the U of M. Tough place to play . . . great place to win.)
The Tigers (now 22-8) will need to win the Conference USA tournament next week in Tulsa to make the NCAA tournament. But now so will the 23-6 Blazers. No way does UAB get an at-large bid having lost twice to an NIT-bound Memphis team.
Unlike the Tiger win on February 3rd, in which the lead changed hands 31 times, Memphis led this game over the last 30 minutes, but saw a 10-point lead with eight minutes to play reduced to a nail-biting final three minutes. Having hit five three-pointers in the first half, the U of M missed seven in a row before Doneal Mack drained one with 2:50 to play to give the Tigers a 59-51 lead. Clutch free-throw shooting (Memphis made six of eight over the last 30 seconds) gave Memphis a 70-65 win and clinched second place in C-USA for the regular season.
• Bizarre call against Willie Kemp with 1:20 to go: offensive foul as he drove to the basket, but the officials allowed Kemp's converted field goal. You just never see this kind of call anymore. What looked like a potential game-clincher became a wash when UAB's Howard Crawford — the player Kemp fouled AFTER scoring at the other end — hit both free throws. The Tigers led by three at the time.
• There were signs that Josh Pastner was willing to go inside to Will Coleman for some offense tonight. He scored the Tigers' first two field goals inside, and made four of five attempts for the game. But when the rain started falling from outside — Mack and Sallie each hit back-to-back treys around a long one from Elliot Williams in the first half — Coleman's presence offensively was erased. When the Tigers' long-distance shooters went cold in the second half, the ball and Coleman's hands hardly met. I'm convinced this will be the Achilles heel we remember from the 2009-10 Tigers: no interior offense.
• Pardon my fetish for letters, but I have to share this as we near the season's end. How could a team that relies so much on Willie, Will, Williams, and Wesley Witherspoon not compile its share of W's? Had you asked any Tiger fan last May if she or he would take 22 wins in the transition season ahead, you would have received a smile and a handshake. Senior Day and a pair of tournaments still to go.