The Tigers took a big lead today against an overmatched team. Then halftime came. (However familiar this opening paragraph may seem, please keep reading.) After the break, Memphis allowed that overmatched team to go on an extended run while the Tiger offense played sporadic basketball. The U of M salvaged a win with a late burst of energy (and, not incidentally, a few timely field goals).
Today's victim was Harvard, but the Crimson merely belongs in a club of Tiger opponents that could bond over big leads erased. Tennessee. East Carolina. The club is growing.
"We won this game with our defense," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after the game, his team's eighth straight victory finally secured. We were not in a rhythm offensively [the Tigers shot 39.3 percent from the field]. Harvard came into the game ranked third in the country in three-point shooting, and we held them to 25 percent [four for 16]. We hit another big-time skid offensively, but we won with defense."
Playing the program's first contest against an Ivy League opponent in more than 24 years, the Tigers raced out to a 20-point lead over the game's first 15 minutes. Despite junior guard Geron Johnson being limited to four minutes by a pair of fouls, the Tigers entered the break up a comfortable 16 points (32-16). But after the break, of course, lulls happen. At least to this team.
When Crimson point guard Siyani Chambers converted a layup just over 12 minutes into the second half, Harvard tied the game at 44, a cool 28-12 run in coach Tommy Amaker's hip pocket. Sophomore forward Steve Moundou-Missi's dunk a minute later gave the defending Ivy champs a 46-44 lead and had the crowd of 16,204 at FedExForum grinding their teeth over another lead blown right before their eyes. On the next Tiger possession, senior D.J. Stephens converted his own slam. When Joe Jackson dropped in a layup on a fastbreak pass from Johnson with five minutes to go, Memphis took the lead right back. Junior guard Chris Crawford scored eight of the Tigers' final ten points (including two more dunks) to provide a somewhat deceiving final margin of victory.
"We had some tremendous stops there at the end," said Crawford. "It helped us out. But we're struggling with turnovers [Crawford had four of the Tigers' 16]. If we take care of the ball and make shots, we'll be good."
As for the familiar — and extended — midgame lull, Crawford admitted to the possibility he and his teammates get complacent with a big lead. "We need to stay focused, keep our foot down [on the pedal]," he said. "Big leads are nice." Crawford's 13 points led the Tigers and were his most since late November.
"Chris has been working hard," said Jackson, who added 10 points, four assists, and four steals. "It's a long season. It's gonna happen for him. Everybody goes through a spell for a couple of games. You just push through it, and bounce back."
Like Crawford, Jackson doesn't want to forsake big early leads, but he'd like events to unfold a bit less dramatically. "We get up, and teams come back," he said. "It's nice to be up. I'd rather we're up than be playing from behind. As long as we win the game. We've got to work on it. We were a second-half team last year. Everything's gonna come together."
"You're gonna have ruts," emphasized Pastner, "when you're out of whack offensively. That's when you have to rely on defense."
Overall, Memphis held the Crimson to 37.5 percent from the field and won the rebounding battle, 42-28. Memphis grabbed 12 steals and blocked eight shots. Four of those blocks were delivered by Stephens, who added 10 points and eight rebounds despite bruising his left elbow on a fall in the second half. Freshman forward Shaq Goodwin added 11 points, eight rebounds, three blocks, and three steals.
The Tigers improve to 14-3 with the win and return to Conference USA play Tuesday night when Tulane comes to town.
NOTES: Despite a size advantage over the Crimson forwards and Goodwin saddled with four fouls, junior center Tarik Black only played four minutes in the second half. He was one of five from the field in 12 minutes for the game. "We don't have time to wait," said Pastner when asked about Black's current role on the team. "The caravan's moving forward. I'm not going to babysit during the game. If you're not producing, you're going to sit."