It’s come to feel as customary in March as a green tie on the 17th. Another Conference USA basketball tournament in the books, another Memphis Tiger team cutting down the nets. With their seventh straight blowout victory, the Tigers earned their sixth C-USA tourney title in seven seasons today at FedExForum. The win gives the Tigers, now 26-8, an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, the field for which will be announced Sunday evening.
Sophomore point guard Joe Jackson led the Tigers with 19 points and became the first player to win tournament MVP honors two years in a row. Two sophomore teammates — Will Barton and Tarik Black — joined Jackson on the all-tournament team, along with Marshall’s DeAndre Kane and Dennis Tinnon.
“This was a must-win,” said Barton after the game, a championship hat askew on his head. “Because we want to get the highest seed possible for the NCAA tournament. Just because we’re in the [NCAA] tournament, don’t think we didn’t want to win this championship. It was one of the goals we set in the preseason.”
After sub par games in the quarterfinals and semifinals, Barton picked up his 11th double-double of the season against the Thundering Herd, finishing with 18 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. (Tiger coach Josh Pastner called Barton the “best guard rebounder in the country” during his postgame press conference.) Chris Crawford — yet another sophomore standout for the Tigers — added 10 points and seven assists, while senior Wesley Witherspoon scored 11 points in his final college game in Memphis. With Tarik Black limited to 13 minutes by foul trouble and a bruised forearm — suffered when he dove into the Marshall bench to save a loose ball — Ferrakohn Hall stepped up and made all five of his field-goal attempts for 10 points, a new high for the junior forward as a Tiger.
Playing their fourth game in as many days, the Thundering Herd kept things tight early, despite Memphis hitting nine of its first 12 shots. But the Tigers reeled off a 17-4 run over seven minutes of the first half, turning an 18-15 lead into a comfortable 16-point cushion. Marshall closed within 13 (52-39) seven minutes into the second half, but the Tigers answered with key three-pointers by Crawford and Antonio Barton. With seven minutes to play, Memphis led by 19, the outcome no longer in doubt.
The Tigers hit 25 of 27 free throws, with Jackson 10 of 11 from the stripe. The pride of White Station High School hit 8 of 10 free throws in last year’s title-game win over UTEP. He was pleased with the new MVP hardware, but pointed to a bigger picture for his team. “It’s really about winning, not about the MVP award,” said Jackson. “I thought Tarik deserved it; he’s been playing his [heart out]. We’ve all been playing hard.”
The win extends the Tigers’ season-high streak to seven games, a stretch in which they’ve beaten C-USA competition by an average of 22.7 points. Going back to Christmas — when the Tigers spent their holiday deliberating over a 6-5 record — Memphis has won 20 of 23 games, with the three losses coming by a total of six points.
“This is a player’s game,” said Pastner. “It’s my responsibility to make sure we have some structure, a foundation, a vision. But it’s on the players. We need to put them in a position to win. There’s always room to get better, room for growth.”
Crawford took special pride in winning his second C-USA tournament, this one having been played in his hometown. “It’s the fans,” he emphasized in a jubilant locker room. “Last year, we cut down the nets in front of, like, 30 fans. It’s just great doing it at home. I used to watch [Memphis] on TV, and now we’re playing for those same fans. It’s special.”
“Being able to hold up that sign that says Conference USA champions in front of our fans — and the ovation we got — was special,” said Black, another native Memphian.
Pastner said he feels the Tigers have earned a seeding of five in the NCAA tournament, emphasizing his team’s strength of schedule and 20 wins over the last 23 games. Black offered his own take on the team’s approach to the upcoming Big Dance. “Last year, as freshmen, we wanted to try and win a game,” he said. “Try. This year, we expected to be in the NCAA tournament. We’ve always gotten along well, but we needed time to understand each other [as players]. It takes time. All about character.”