The 6th-ranked Louisville Cardinals did what villains do. They stayed in the locker room for the pregame national anthem. They took the floor dressed, head to toe, in black. With hoods on. Then, after teasing a FedExForum crowd of 18,392 by falling behind 16 points, the Cardinals got nasty after halftime, forced 24 turnovers (two more than their average), and outscored the Tigers by 19 points over the game's final 12 minutes. Star guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva each scored 19 points for Louisville and neither led the visitors in scoring (Chane Behanan had 22). The Cardinals made 38 of an astounding 46 free throw attempts to win a game in which they scored eight fewer field goals than their hosts.
"We didn't put a whole game together," said Tiger center Tarik Black, who scored 21 points in 22 minutes, but grabbed only two rebounds. "They're a great team, obviously. But they didn't do anything out there that made us lose the game. It was on us. When the refs start to control the game, it's tough to get into a rhythm. But that's on us."
The officials did what they could to remind anyone watching that there was a third team on the floor. (It should be noted that Mike Stuart and John Cahill worked the Final Four last April.) A total of 53 fouls were called (33 of them on Tiger players), with five Tigers hit with two before halftime. By the end of the game, five Tigers had fouled out, the most damaging being Geron Johnson, who left the game with just over five minutes to play and the Tigers down, 65-60. (Johnson scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 27 minutes while helping to hold Louisville's Smith to three-for-eleven shooting from the field.)
Tiger coach Josh Pastner refused to comment on the officiating, citing Conference USA regulations, but acknowledged his substitution pattern became one of protecting his players in foul trouble, as opposed to strategic replacements or energy boosters. "Can you play man with Geron Johnson with four fouls?," he asked. "There's really no rhyme or reason. You don't want to take too many guys out in foul trouble, because you still want to win the game. They won because of two things: they made more free throws than we attempted  and they scored 29 points off our turnovers."
Memphis raced out to a 25-9 lead over the game's first 10 minutes, largely behind the elevated play of senior forward D.J. Stephens, who started for the first time this season. One sequence saw Stephens block a Cardinal's jump shot on the defensive end, then slam home an alley-oop from Chris Crawford at the other end for an 11-point Tiger lead. His three-pointer from the right corner gave the Tigers that 16-point lead, but with almost 30 minutes left to play in the game.
The Tigers scored the last six points of the first half to lead by seven (35-28) at halftime. When Johnson followed a three-pointer with a thunderous breakaway dunk (after stealing the ball from the Cardinals' Kevin Ware), Memphis led 54-44 not quite eight minutes into the second half. Over the next two-and-a-half minutes, though, Louisville scored 13 unanswered points, long-distance connections from Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock keying the run. After missing seven of eight three-point attempts in the first half, the Cardinals hit six of nine in the second.
Joe Jackson missed two free throws with the Tigers down six and 2:40 to play and Black missed single attempts with the Tigers down eight and five, respectively, in the game's waning minutes. Jackson scored a game-high 23 points and dished out a game-high eight assists, but also led both teams with eight turnovers. Memphis has now turned the ball over 47 times in its last two games.
Tiger sophomore Adonis Thomas returned to action after missing most of the team's last game with an eye injury. But he was not a factor, scoring four points and pulling down four rebounds in 33 minutes. In a game dripping with fouls, Thomas didn't take a single free throw.
"We need him to get going," said Pastner. "I want him to get aggressive. To drive the ball and get to the line, and rebound. He's gotta do it. Once he gets going . . . he's just gotta produce. We'll be a better team. He's gotta get it done, and he knows it, too."
The loss drops the Tigers' record to 6-3 and leaves them in the familiar position of having to claw their way toward a respectable NCAA seed (presuming a berth, of course) with no opponent of Louisville's caliber left on the schedule. Pastner must now motivate his team — and a rather large fan base — for three more home games before the new year: Lipscomb (next Thursday), Oral Roberts, and Loyola-Maryland.
"Defensively, we're a better team than we were last year," said Thomas. "And we have so many weapons on offense, we'll be okay. We've got to focus on rebounding, getting out in transition to score."
Added Jackson, "If we can get everything clicking for 40 minutes, we'll have a scary team."
That magic word: if.