If you need names on the back of the jerseys to identify basketball players in late February, you have the wrong guys on the floor. Fuming over Saturday’s upset loss to UTEP at FedExForum, Tiger coach Josh Pastner made some culture adjustments before tonight’s tilt with East Carolina, including a new approach to fashion.
“Saturday was a bad day at a bad time,” said Pastner after his team had handled the Pirates. “I was waking up in cold sweat. I had to snap out of it. I was furious. I felt our approach wasn’t right before the [UTEP] game. But it happens. I eliminated the locker room. I eliminated anything they wear with ‘Memphis’ on it. Nothing. It’s a privilege and honor to wear that [jersey]. It’s not a right. Based on tonight — I think they had a really great attitude — I will let them back in the locker room. But no more names on the back of the jersey, and if it’s up to me, I don’t think I’ll have names on the jerseys for my career here, as long as I’m the coach at Memphis. It’s got to be about the name on the front.”
Perhaps more significant to the team’s prospects for the balance of the regular season, Pastner returned sophomore Joe Jackson to the starting lineup for the first time since the loss at Georgetown on December 22nd. Jackson replaced Chris Crawford, a player Pastner felt needed a “little kick in the butt” after poor body language during the UTEP loss. Jackson played 32 minutes (his most since December 19th), scored 13 points and dished out seven assists.
ECU actually led the game, 26-25, with 6:21 to play in the first half. Pirate guard Miguel Paul hit all three of his three-point attempts and scored 17 points over the game’s first 20 minutes. A late push by the Tigers, who shot 56 percent in the first half, gave Memphis a 37-32 lead at the break. A 16-7 run over the first nine minutes of the second half opened up a 14-point lead for the Tigers in front of the smallest crowd this season at FedExForum (15, 744). Will Barton led the home team with 25 points despite leaving the game briefly in the second half with a leg cramp.
Barton acknowledged a boost from Jackson’s play. “He’s one of the best in the country, when he’s just playing basketball and not thinking,” said Barton. “He’s a big-time talent, he’s just a naturally quiet guy. I like catching lobs from Joe . . . he wants to do so well. I trust him to get the ball to me so I can finish.”
The Tigers held Paul to three points in the second half and the Pirate team to 22-percent shooting over the last 20 minutes. The Memphis defense forced a season-high 26 turnovers, with six blocked shots and 15 steals (five of them from Wesley Witherspoon).
The victory gives the Memphis program a 12th consecutive 20-win season, with three tests remaining before the Conference USA tournament. Sophomore center Tarik Black — 9 points and 9 rebounds tonight — touched on the importance of taking some momentum to Marshall for Saturday’s game. “When we lose, we always feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s time for us to balance the scales again. It balances us mentally. Marshall’s always a tough place to play. We plan on getting up there, playing hard, and erasing what happened last year [a blowout loss to the Thundering Herd].”