Can a six-point victory be more deflating than a nine-point loss? Five days after losing to sixth-ranked Louisville, the Tigers tested the riddle tonight at FedExForum with a listless win over a Lipscomb team that had lost by 34 to Belmont. And by 46 to Ole Miss. Sophomore forward Adonis Thomas returned to form with a game-high 18 points (and seven rebounds) and Geron Johnson followed a scoreless first half with 10 points in the second to help Memphis to its seventh win of the season. Just ditch the game tape.
"This was a clunker," said coach Josh Pastner after the game. "That wasn't our team out there. We're missing free throws left and right, we didn't have energy. But we found a way to win. There's no excuse for us to have an emotional letdown [after the Louisville game]." Which is to say, there was a noticeable emotional letdown for the home team.
The first half saw five lead changes, the Tigers forcing 16 turnovers but only able to score five points off the Bison miscues. A three-point halftime lead for the U of M was erased in the first two minutes of the second half and the game was tied at 41 with seven minutes left in the game. Lipscomb center Stephen Hurt threw his considerable weight around inside, scoring 15 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. His final field goal of the game drew the Bisons within four points (56-52) with 1:20 left in the game, but the margin wouldn't get any closer.
The crowd of 15,454 left the building with the kind of applause you might hear during first-round play of a golf tournament. "The energy level was low," said Tiger center Tarik Black, who scored only four points but led Memphis with nine rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench. "I'm not sure why. But it's not a light switch; you can't just turn it on."
Low energy often partners with diminished focus. The Tigers missed 18 of 39 free throws, dramatically off their rate of 72 percent entering the game. Shaq Goodwin and Black combined to make only five of 18 attempts.
"It was tight and tense early," said Thomas. "After all the turnovers  against Louisville. We gave them too many second-chance points. It was ugly. We've got to get out in transition, and we weren't able to do that."
The Tigers' high-flying, one-man energy booster — senior D.J. Stephens — was limited to nine minutes with various bumps and bruises. (He's on pace to set a single-season record for falls from a height of four feet or higher.) Junior guard Chris Crawford missed all six of his field-goal attempts (five of them from long range), but managed a career-high seven steals. Joe Jackson added 15 points and Goodwin had 11 points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes.
"Adonis has been working individually with Coach [Damon] Stoudamire," noted Pastner. "And intensely. It's helped him. As for Chris, I liked his body language. He's gotta make shots. He was wide open, and he has to take those. He's a shooter. It's a confidence thing."
The Tigers have eight days before Oral Roberts comes to town. Eight days to find a new (or misplaced) energy resource. For now — at 7-3 — a team enjoys Christmas break not all that sure what exactly it has under the tree.
"I believe we're really close to being great," emphasized Pastner. "But don't include this game. This was not us."