“That’s a tough style to play. It’s like going to the dentist without novocaine.” Tiger coach Josh Pastner was grinning as he described his team’s 13th win of the season Saturday afternoon, but the expression seemed more one of relief than joy. “Coming off a tough loss [Wednesday at UCF] we really didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. But I thought over the last 13 minutes we did a good job defensively.”
Following a 16-minute delay because of a malfunction in the FedExForum lighting system, the Tigers traded punches — and stumbles — with the Mustangs over the game’s first 30 minutes. SMU took a 10-4 lead early before Memphis seemed to gain control on a Stan Simpson dunk for a 23-19 lead with 7:31 left in the first half. But despite nine rebounds (six of them on the offensive end) from Tarik Black in the first 20 minutes, Memphis led only 30-28 at halftime.
The Tigers didn’t score over the first four minutes of the second half and fell behind (32-30) with 15:59 to play. Having regained the lead with 11:30 to go, the Tigers went on a 15-2 run to seize control, spurred in part by Black diving to the floor to gain possession (via timeout) for the home team.
Sophomore Will Barton’s playing status was in question right up to tip-off, as the swingman was nursing a bruised toe suffered in the UCF loss three days earlier. He started, though, and scored a game-high 24 points, including three dunks, one of them on a lob from his brother, Antonio, who stood on the left wing as he released the pass.
“That feels so good,” said Antonio. “It created some momentum. So much energy. It’s part of the connection that [Will and I] have.” Antonio Barton was one of four Tigers — along with his brother, Black, and Chris Crawford — to play at least 34 minutes against the Mustangs as Pastner essentially rotated his bench for one position on the floor. Antonio, for one, welcomed the extra playing time. “Me being the point guard, it’s my job to bring energy, whether I’m on the floor or on the bench. We have a great strength coach [Frank Matrisciano], so fatigue is never a factor.”
Black continues to make an impact on both ends of the floor. His block of an SMU shot led to the Barton-to-Barton alley-oop. He finished the game with 11 points and a career-high 13 rebounds for his first double-double of the season (and just the second of his two-year career).
Said Black after the game, “It was important for us to get out there, with all our potential, and show people who might think we’re not as good as they thought we were . . . to show how good a team we are. We tried to think the three out of the game.”
SMU entered the game averaging 8.1 three pointers per game, but made only five of 27 against the Tigers. Their leading scorer, Robert Nyakundi, was held to 10 points and missed nine of 11 shots from three-point range. Overall, SMU shot 33 percent from the field. Memphis improved to 11-0 on the season when holding its opponent under 40 percent.
The Tigers can now consider themselves somewhat recovered from the last-minute loss at UCF, though the sting of that defeat may be motivating this team for a while. “I’m still not over it now,” said Black. “I’d like this to have been our eighth straight win. I took the loss personally, because I feel like it had a lot to do with me, that I didn’t perform as well as I should. But it’s all about how mentally strong you are. You’re gonna hate a loss. But we talk about it, and we stay together. You don’t necessarily put it aside, but you don’t let it linger. It’s time to bounce back.”
If not a trip to the dentist, the victory was hardly pretty. The Tigers made only two of 16 three-point attempts and committed 12 turnovers with only 13 assists.
A pair of home games are next for Memphis, with Rice in town next Wednesday. The Owls are 11-8 entering their game Saturday against Tulsa and feature one of Conference USA’s top players in forward Arsalan Kazemi.