March was in the air tonight at FedExForum. The NCAA tournament may be six weeks away, but the Tigers and Thundering Herd played a game that seemed to carry more weight than mere positioning in the Conference USA standings. And if you asked the 17,377 fans in attendance what made the contest different, many would point to the awakening of a Memphis senior who has often been seen as sleep-walking through his final college campaign.
Wesley Witherspoon filled the stat sheet unlike he has since the Tigers’ opening game on November 15th: 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and a blocked shot in 25 minutes of playing time. Just as welcome to his team’s cause, Witherspoon drew two offensive fouls. “He’s an energy guy,” said teammate Will Barton after the game. “When his energy’s high, that’s when he’s at his best. We’ve got to keep it that way. We need him.”
Having started the season 13-4, Marshall entered tonight’s game on a three-game losing streak. An upset of the Tigers would keep them in the hunt for the C-USA regular-season championship, and perhaps establish the Herd as legitimate rivals to the longtime conference pace-setters.
Early three-pointers by DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts helped Marshall to a 21-17 lead, but neither team was able to gain separation before halftime. (There were nine lead changes over the game’s first 20 minutes.) Will Barton scored 13 points over the game’s first 10 minutes and helped the Tigers shoot 50 percent for the first half (equal to Marshall’s rate).
Leading 41-40 at the break, the Herd went on an 8-2 run to open the second half, a period that saw no fewer than 32 fouls called. But after hitting four of six three-pointers in the first half, Marshall’s shooters went cold, misfiring on nine of 11 long-range attempts in the second half.
Limited to 12 minutes in the first half (with two fouls), Memphis center Tarik Black took command on the offensive end in the second half when he scored 13 of his season-high 19 points (he was eight of 11 from the field). He scored on a drive through the lane with 1:16 to play, drew a foul, and converted the free throw to give the Tigers a 75-71 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“I’m nervous before every game,” said Black. “But once they toss it up, you play on adrenaline. Coach Damon Stoudamire says you play the first five minutes on pure adrenaline, then you see who’s the better team. The game settled down and we just played.”
Black acknowledged the role Witherspoon played in earning a win over a formidable foe. “To have a guy who’s 6’9”, with a wingspan like his, play [small forward] or [power forward], that shows our versatility. All of us should be hustle players, diving on the floor, getting the loose balls, gaining possession. It doesn’t matter who does it, but I applaud Wesley tonight for doing it. That’s what helps you win games in conference. It’s all about 50-50 balls.”
Foul trouble caught up with the visitors as Dennis Tinnon (4 points) and Robert Goff (5) each fouled out with more than three minutes to play. Kane played much of the second half with four fouls and finished with 15 points. Shaquille Johnson led Marshall on the scoreboard with 21.
It was a real competitive game,” added Barton, who scored a career-high 29 points and grabbed eight rebounds. “Marshall’s one of the best teams in the league. They think we’re the top dogs and they want to be the top dogs. We had to bring it right back, and that’s what we did.”
The win for Memphis (now 15-6 overall) sets up a clash with Southern Miss next Wednesday in Hattiesburg between the two teams tied atop the C-USA standings (each with a 6-1 league record).