The Demons came to play tonight. But so did Will Barton.
The most highly acclaimed freshman on a team packed with blue chips, Barton played more minutes in tonight’s win over Northwestern State (31) than he did in the 19th-ranked Tigers’ first two games combined (26). Playing somewhat gingerly since turning his ankle shortly before his first college exhibition game, Barton had scored but five points (and missed all six of his three-point attempts) in the Tigers’ first two wins of the season. Tonight, though, he came to the rescue of a team that will need him.
Devon Baker’s jumper from the foul line capped a 12-4 Demon run to start the second half and gave the visitors a 63-61 lead with just over 13 minutes to play. But Barton took a pass in the left corner and drained a three-pointer to regain the lead for Memphis and lift the crowd of 16,215 to its feet for the first time. A steal on the next Demon possession led to a Barton dunk, which was followed shortly by another pair of Barton treys (one from the right corner, another from the right wing, as though he were playing a high-stakes game of Around-the-World). Over two-and-a-half minutes, Will Barton scored 11 points, gave the Tigers a 72-65 lead, and restored confidence in Tiger Nation that, yes, Josh Pastner has the finest recruiting class in the country.
“It just felt so good,” said Barton after the game. “I mean, the crowd, everybody in Memphis has been waiting for me to have a day like this. I had to let it all out. No one ever gave up on me, and that was big. If someone was open, I would have passed the ball, but I was open so, hey, let’s keep it going.
“I knew we had fallen behind. When things are falling apart, I just want to take over a game. Not just necessarily scoring, but my leadership, rebounding, passing the ball. We don’t want to lose.”
Thanks to Barton’s one-man run and some second-half defense from fellow freshman Chris Crawford (who helped slow down the Demons’ Will Pratt, who ended up with 23 points), the Tigers improved to 3-0 heading into their game this Sunday against LSU (in Tupelo). Wesley Witherspoon scored 24 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to help the cause. Witherspoon hit 13 of 14 free throws and has now made 23 of 25 over the Tigers’ last two games. (“They’re free, so you might as well make them,” he quipped. Witherspoon entered the season a 70-percent foul shooter.)
Coach Josh Pastner opened his postgame comments by apologizing — twice — for hitting the scorer’s table during the game. The remarks would have made for good comedy were he not so serious.
“I don’t like doing that,” he said. “I promise you, I will try, but I’m sure I will knock it a few more times over the season. But I got frustrated. I knew the importance of this game, and the hangover effect. This could be a trap game. If you start reading your press clippings, you have a tendency to have a hangover. We got up 17 or 19, and we just thought the game was over, and we could let up. This was a great opportunity for us to learn that when you have a team down, you’ve got to keep them down.
“Winning is hard. I know everyone is tired of me saying it. But I mean it. Winning is hard, every single game. With a young team, we’re going to be up and down. We’re working through some things. But there’s nothing better than being 3-0.”
Senior center Will Coleman was limited to nine minutes on the floor (two points, one rebound) and junior Angel Garcia only played 11 (though he scored nine points). Pastner acknowledged that frustration is in the air, particularly with Coleman. “I love the guy,” said Pastner. “He has a huge heart, and he’ll be back. But it’s about production.”
Memphis had 19 turnovers, but outrebounded the Demons, 42-28. Freshman center Tarik Black scored nine points and pulled down five rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench.