When Memphis fans reflect on the Tigers' pending exit from Conference USA, the team fans may most rejoice in leaving behind: the UTEP Miners. Whether in the cozy quarters of FedExForum or at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, UTEP has been the splinter lodged quasi-permanently between the toes of the Tiger basketball program over the last four years.
Though one more C-USA tournament remains to be played, Memphis may have finally removed the splinter with tonight's 56-54 escape in Texas. A game that featured 15 lead changes wasn't decided until UTEP's Jacques Streeter missed a desperation heave just inside the midcourt stripe as time expired. Streeter stole an inbounds pass intended for Joe Jackson after the Tigers had retained possession following a missed free throw by Tarik Black. The splinter was that stubborn. The win was that ugly.
Junior forward Adonis Thomas hit a three-pointer to give the Tigers the lead for good (54-51) with just under three minutes to play. Down 56-53 with 5.3 seconds left, the Miners had a chance to tie the game when Black fouled UTEP's C.J. Cooper well behind the three-point arc. But Cooper missed the first of three free throws (and intentionally missed the third, which was rebounded by Black).
Chris Crawford came off the bench and led the Tigers with 15 points, while Thomas added 11 and nine rebounds. Geron Johnson contributed with 10 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. Senior forward D.J. Stephens was limited to eight minutes of playing time by an aggravation of his asthma condition.
The win improves the Tigers' record to 26-4 and 15-0 in Conference USA play. A victory this Saturday against UAB at FedExForum (on Senior Day) would give the U of M its fourth undefeated season atop the league it leaves behind with next week's tournament at Tulsa. Among the teams coach Josh Pastner would prefer not facing in the C-USA tourney? The UTEP Miners.