Let’s go ahead and get this over with: Tonight’s Tiger victory was ’Spoon-fed.
On an evening when Wesley Witherspoon and Preston Laird were honored as departing seniors, Memphis avenged a January loss to UCF by eviscerating the Knights in front of 17,784 raucous fans at FedExForum. (Even with a late tip-off on Tuesday night, it was the second-largest crowd of the season.) The win improves the Tigers’ record to 22-8 and clinches at least a tie for the Conference USA regular-season championship (the program’s first since 2009). Memphis (12-3 in C-USA) can win the league outright with a victory at Tulsa Saturday.
For the fourth time this season, the Tigers held an opponent under 20 points in the first half, taking a 33-18 lead as time expired on a three-pointer from the top of the arc by, you guessed it, Wesley Witherspoon. (It was the only three-pointer made in a combined 13 attempts for the two teams before halftime.)
After the break, things got silly. The Tigers went on a 30-11 run over a ten-minute stretch to take a 76-38 lead with more than five minutes left to play. What was supposed to be a nail-biter between a pair of 20-win teams turned into a freestyle exhibition, the kind a home crowd might expect in mid-November, not so much in late February.
Will Barton led the Tigers with 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season, but his first since January 14th. The sophomore candidate for C-USA Player of the Year added four assists and four blocked shots in 31 minutes of action.
Joe Jackson dished out a career-high 10 assists and played a career-high 37 minutes, in part because Antonio Barton sat out the second half with an ankle sprain. (Barton’s status for Saturday’s game is undetermined.) Tarik Black — leading C-USA in field-goal percentage — hit seven of his eight shots and finished with 14 points in 19 minutes. After the game, Black described the recipe for tonight’s blowout.
“It was all about defense,” said Black. “It led to some fast-break buckets, and that’s what it takes to win games.” As for his ever-growing impact with the ball in his hands, Black acknowledged the twin elements to his team peaking offensively. “I’m playing off of instinct now. If I feel like I can score it, I’ll do it. If not, I’ll pass it back out and wait for another opportunity. If you don’t have an inside game, the outside game can’t show, because the defense can guard the perimeter and not worry about the inside. With a team like ours, when you can attack with both inside and outside, it’s really an impossible task to stop.”
Relishing his senior spotlight, Witherspoon scored 15 points — his second-highest total of the season and most since the opening game in November — and added seven rebounds and four steals. “That’s my guy,” said Black. “I love him to death. We won’t have any bad memories about tonight. He’ll go home happy and hang out with his family.”
With the game in hand and just under four minutes to play, Laird entered to the crowd’s delight. The Germantown High School alum hit a free throw and short jumper for his first points since his sophomore season. “I’m just as happy for him,” said Black. “He doesn’t get as much playing time, but he’s just as good a teammate. We’re going to study tomorrow; he’s going to help me out on a test. That’s teamwork.”
Sophomore guard Chris Crawford added 11 points, five rebounds, and five assists to the stat box. He was all smiles after the party atmosphere of what amounts to a revenge win, but pointed to the importance of what remains for his team with postseason play looming. “The last time we played them, they hurt us, and stormed the court,” said Crawford. “We had to come out hard tonight. It’s like a dream come true, playing in front of 17,000 or 18,000 fans. It’s a great feeling when your team is in rhythm like that. Saturday [at Tulsa], it’s an early game [tip-off at 11 a.m.], and we haven’t been real good in early games. We gotta get some rest and come out with a lot of energy like we did tonight.”