And a fan base exhaled.
On what amounted to Newcomers Night at FedExForum, the Memphis Tigers rode the high-octane play of Shaq Goodwin and Geron Johnson to a much-needed win over a team that less than nine months ago played in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. Freshman forward Goodwin came up one rebound short of his second straight double-double (17 points, 9 rebounds), while Johnson — the junior transfer kicked off his high school team and two junior-college programs — somehow upstaged him with 21 points in 29 minutes off the bench. Junior point guard Joe Jackson — the grizzled veteran among this bunch — scored 10 points while adding five assists and five steals to the biggest win of the Tigers' young season.
"When Joe plays like that," said coach Josh Pastner, "it adds a pep to my step. I loved our energy tonight. We're not going to be a methodical team. We have to bring energy, and we did tonight against a very good team."
The crowd of 15,669 can say they were at Johnson's official coming-out party. The native of Dayton, Ohio, sat out the first three games of the season for having accepted education-based benefits at his previous school, but since taking the floor for the Tigers' final game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, he's been one more energy booster for Pastner's club. Johnson fueled a 15-5 run over a six-minute stretch of the first half that turned a three-point Tiger deficit into a seven-point lead, one they would not relinquish for the rest of the game. He scored the last field goal before halftime on an acrobatic drive to the basket, finishing with a left-handed scoop shot last seen during Derrick Rose's lone college season in Memphis (2007-08).
"He changed the tempo of the game," said Pastner. "And he loves defense." Johnson helped control Ohio's perimeter game, the Bobcats making only six of 25 three-point attempts (24 percent), well under their season average of 40 percent. D.J. Cooper scored 19 points for the visitors but Jon Smith (12) was the only other Bobcat in double figures.
As for Goodwin, the Georgia product merely scored the Tigers' first 10 points of the second half . . . in three minutes and 40 seconds. Following a trey and dunk from Johnson, the Tigers led 51-37 with just under 15 minutes to play and never again saw their lead below ten points. Goodwin entertained questions after the game about one dunk attempt that went through the rim, bounced off his head . . . and back through the rim to discount two points. "At first I didn't know it," said Goodwin. "I feel like they should count that, because the ball had to go through the cylinder."
"We ran our system," added Goodwin. "We ran our plays, and I was in the right place at the right time." Cliches aside, Goodwin earned his dunks — those he converted — by running the floor and being in position for fastbreak feeds from Jackson, Johnson, and Chris Crawford. He also hit eight of ten free throws. Goodwin welcomed the game's frenetic pace and all of his 28 minutes. "I looked at Coach [Pastner], and he said 'Dig in.' So that's what I did."
Junior center Tarik Black returned to big cheers after a one-game suspension for disciplinary reasons. He scored on a dunk shortly after entering the game midway through the first half and grabbed three rebounds in 12 minutes. But this was a night for new faces at Third and Beale. Pastner especially welcomed the positive vibe Johnson brought to the arena.
"He was being a follower," said Pastner after the game in reflecting on Johnson's past transgressions. "He needs structure and discipline in his life. He's a good guy, and he's unselfish . . . off the court, too. He knows that everything he does, he'll be held accountable. There is no margin for error, and he appreciates that: the structure and discipline. [Johnson has a midnight curfew, seven days a week.] Life lessons like time management will help him later in life. Basketball can be an avenue for that."
As for beating a team that entered the game with a 6-1 record, and relieving a fan base hungry for a win over a team with credentials, Johnson was matter-of-fact. "We need each other to achieve the goals we have," said Johnson. "I'm still learning. This game was no more important than any other. Austin Peay's gonna be a big game, then Louisville. They're all important. [Ohio's] a great team; it's a good victory for us."
The Tigers (5-2) return to FedExForum Saturday for a noon tip-off against Austin Peay. Noted Pastner, "I don't want to hear anything about Louisville."