It’s come to this. A 3-point win at home over the East Carolina Pirates is a relief for the Memphis Tigers.
Saturday afternoon at FedExForum, the Tigers saw a 12-point halftime lead evaporate, but hit some key shots over the game’s last seven minutes and made just enough free throws to earn a victory in their Conference USA opener. Perennial C-USA bottom-feeders, ECU is now 0-9 against Memphis (and 8-7 overall this season). The Tigers improve to 12-3, though they’ll be outside the Top 25 when the polls are updated Monday due to their loss last Wednesday at Tennessee.
“I said before the game, I hope we win so we can get some positive vibes out there,” chuckled coach Josh Pastner after the game. “You come off a game like we played at Tennessee — the criticism was earned and deserved — I wanted to make sure we didn’t have anything infect us with negative energy. I cannot stand negativity. We couldn’t let anything linger as we move forward.”
The Tiger defense stifled ECU in the first half, allowing only five field goals over the game’s first 20 minutes. When the Pirates hit a pair of three-pointers in the first 90 seconds, Pastner substituted an entire five-man unit, and a 10-3 deficit became a 20-13 lead over a ten-minutes stretch. The same mass-substitution was made early in the second half, a factor in ten different Tigers playing at least 15 minutes over the course of the game.
“I felt like we got a monkey off our back,” said Pastner. “I’m going to give them their first day off tomorrow in two weeks. It will be good for everybody.”
Work remains for this team to approximate the Top 20 ranking it held when the season opened two months ago. The Pirates stuck around by hitting eight of 21 three-point shots. (The Tigers have now given up 32 treys over their last three games.) Memphis missed 13 free throws and several layups, most notably Wesley Witherspoon, who finished the game 3 for 8 from the floor for 8 points, with 6 turnovers and no assists. Tarik Black came off the bench and led Memphis with 12 points and 7 rebounds in just 18 minutes of play. Will Coleman was the only other Tiger who reached double figures in the scoring column (11). The Tigers missed 11 of 13 three-point attempts.
“We missed free throws, and we had 20 turnovers,” noted Pastner. “We can’t miss fastbreak opportunities. But we grinded it out, won a conference game, and we’re 1-0.”
When asked if the start of conference play — and the standings that are impacted with every result — represents a fresh start, Coleman was evasive at best. “None of us bother with that,” he said. We don’t pay attention. We just play. We just have to stay together. We wanted to make sure guys didn’t fall apart. Close games like this show how much we stick together.”
Freshman guard Chris Crawford added, “I don’t like the way we won. It’s nice to have a win under your belt, but I would have preferred a blowout.” Crawford felt there was a message to the mass substitutions at the beginning of each half (he was among the starters), and it may be one his teammates will get used to hearing: “If you’re not going to play defense and rebound, you’re coming out.”
The Tigers travel to Dallas to face SMU Wednesday night. Their next home game will be Saturday, January 15th, against Marshall.