Down 10 points to Xavier with less than eight minutes to play this afternoon, the Tigers were staring at a second straight loss and a serious razor cut to their chances of earning an NCAA tournament berth come March. Spurred by a FedExForum crowd of 17,097, though, the Tigers finished the game on a 23-9 run to beat a Musketeer team every bit as desperate for a major nonconference win.
“We didn’t get too high with the highs or too low with the lows,” said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after the game. “When we were at Southern Miss Wednesday, they earned the victory by hitting 24 of 27 free throws. This afternoon, we earned the victory by hitting 24 of 28 free throws. Two good teams; either could have won. As we walked off the court, [Xavier guard] Tu Holloway came up to me and said, ‘That was the best defense I’ve played against all year long.’”
The teams played to a virtual standstill in the first half, each team making 13 of 27 field-goal attempts and Xavier taking a 35-34 lead into the break despite not a single point from Holloway, their All-America candidate. Xavier outscored the Tigers 9-0 over the first four minutes of the second half and maintained a lead of around 10 points until the Tigers started their comeback near the 7:30 mark.
Sophomore point guard Joe Jackson played a critical role in the comeback, earning more playing time (30 minutes) than he’d seen since December 19th. He matched his career high with eight assists, picked up three steals, and hit all 12 of his free throws, making four in the game’s final 15 seconds to seal the win.
“Joe’s sticking his nose in there,” said Pastner, “coming up with 50-50 balls. Diving on the floor. That energizes the team. His defense can energize our offense. He’s taking such pride in his defense, and that’s where he’s growing.”
“I put pressure on myself when I’m shooting on my own,” said Jackson in reflecting on his performance from the foul line. “I tell myself if I don’t make it, I’m gonna die. So it doesn’t really feel like pressure when I’m out there. Feels like a regular shot.”
After a poor outing last Wednesday at Southern Miss (4 points, 2 rebounds), sophomore center Tarik Black contributed 13 points and 9 rebounds while battling the Musketeers’ mountainous (7’0”, 275 pounds) center Kenny Frease (10 points, 10 rebounds).
“We had to lock in, do what we had to do,” said Black. “Coach told us in the huddle that we had to find another gear. Otherwise it was going in a direction that didn’t look good. I had a long meeting with Coach [after the Southern Miss loss] and he told me, ‘You gotta let that one go.’ It’s how you bounce back. Shows your character. Are you good or are you bad? He told me to stop thinking about it. Today was a tough matchup for me, but we just had to get the job done.”
For the second time in a big three-game stretch (Marshall/Southern Miss/Xavier), senior Wesley Witherspoon made his presence felt in a big win with 12 points (all in the second half) including two three-pointers that helped key the late comeback. “I’m a basketball player,” said Witherspoon. “I just wanted to come out and play good basketball. We have to bring something off the bench, and the bench played well today.”
One more star for the home team was sophomore guard Antonio Barton. He scored two critical layups in the game’s final three minutes, the first to close the Tiger deficit to two points, the second to give them their first lead of the second half (65-63) with 1:30 to play. (Antonio’s older brother, Will, added 13 points.) The Tigers hit seven of eight free throws over the game's final 35 seconds.
Guarded most of the game by Chris Crawford or Jackson, Holloway was limited to three of 12 shooting and 12 points. Dezmine Wells led the Musketeers with 19 points.
“Since the Christmas break, we’ve shown lots of signs of toughness,” said Pastner. “It’s been action on the court, not talking about it. We’re getting better. We’re not a finished product; still lots of room for growth. But if we’re down 10 in the second half before Christmas, I’m not sure we win.”