Sometimes a host can be too gracious. After introducing the most popular Murray State alum in Memphis — new U of M football coach Justin Fuente — the Tigers fell just short in a frenetic comeback over the game’s final two minutes to a Racer team now 10-0 on the still-young season. Down 69-60 with 2:16 to play, Memphis forced four turnovers and closed the deficit to a single point (73-72) on a layup by sophomore guard Joe Jackson.
The Tigers were forced to foul Racer guard Isaiah Canaan with 7.9 seconds left after he broke through the press and dribbled unopposed toward the basket. Canaan hit both free throws and Tiger guard Chris Crawford’s three-point attempt rattled the rim before falling away, ending the U of M’s three-game winning streak and surely dropping the Tigers outside the nation’s Top 25 for the first time this season. (Memphis is ranked 21st in the latest AP poll.)
Sophomore swingman Will Barton had another stellar game for the Tigers, leading the team with 27 points (his fifth 20-point outing in six games). But he recognized his team’s shortcomings on this night, and wasn’t pointing fingers after the game.
“We came out flat,” said Barton. “And we can’t afford to do that. They’re undefeated for a reason. We can’t turn the ball over like that [Memphis had 15 turnovers]. That was my fault. My team is looking at me to be a leader, so that’s on me.”
Barton cited the Tigers’ defensive attack as a strength that must be utilized, and not just in times of desperation. “We can put pressure on like that in the halfcourt. But we have to come out like that. No matter who we’re playing. We’ve got to stay focused.”
Tiger coach Josh Pastner summarized three strategic points he had highlighted entering the game. First, his team needed to defend the three-point shot by Murray State (the Racers hit 9 of 20). Second, the Racers needed to be kept away from the free-throw line (they hit 21 of 29 from the charity stripe). Third, the Tigers had to control the visitors’ role players (while Canaan — averaging 20.3 points — was held to 15, Donte Poole hit six of eight three-pointers and led four Racers in double figures with 20 points).
Jackson added 20 points for Memphis, but Crawford, Wesley Witherspoon, and Adonis Thomas combined to make only three of 22 shots from the field. And a team that loves to push the pace saw itself outscored 23-11 on fast-break points.
“We had two good practices,” said Pastner. “After my pregame talk, I brought Chris over to the side and said, you’ve got to get the team going. But he didn’t have the same body language he normally does. We prepared the same way; the guys practiced well. Basketball’s a game of energy, and they had better energy than we did.”
Pastner acknowledged the energy burst over the game’s final two minutes, but saw a qualifier for the improvement. “That happens in any sport when a team plays in desperation,” he said. “Obviously, if we played like that for 40 minutes, we’d win every game and win the national championship.
“Chris Crawford had a great look at the end, so there’s some peace of mind in that,” added Pastner. “His shot went in and out.”
Memphis now has five days to prepare for a road game at 5th-ranked Louisville next Saturday afternoon. The contest will mark the renewal after six years of the program’s most intense rivalry. Energy will be at a premium, to say the least.