Nights like this are part of the deal.
When the University of Memphis left Conference USA behind for the new — and superior — American Athletic Conference, Tiger fans embraced the upgrade in regular-season competition. Instead of Marshall or Rice on a Wednesday night in mid-January, they could look forward to Cincinnati for a Saturday matinee or UConn in a Thursday night affair televised across the country.
Welcome to that new world. Home-court advantage ain't what it used to be.
"To win a conference championship," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after his team's second straight home loss, "you have to protect your home court and steal a few on the road. We've managed to steal a few on the road, but we're not protecting home court."
UConn's junior forward DeAndre Daniels did his best Scottie Pippen impression, hitting four of five three-point attempts, scoring 23 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and blocking three shots to steal the spotlight from Shabazz Napier, the Huskies' All-America candidate who managed but 17 points (and missed seven of his eight three-point tries). Daniels and Napier each hit a big shot inside the game's final two minutes to clinch the victory for UConn, a win that evens their AAC record at 2-2 (while dropping the Tigers to 3-2 in league play).
The teams played the first half in much the way you'd expect a game on the second weekend of the NCAA tournament to be played. They combined for ten three-pointers (including at least one from each of the Tigers' four acclaimed senior guards), the last one by Husky point guard Ryan Boatright to draw the visitors within one (40-39) at the break.
UConn sprinted into the second half on a 10-2 run in just two and a half minutes of playing time. The Tigers seemed to slow the Huskies with a zone defense, but were never able to seize and expand a lead. Sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin buried a ten-foot jumper from the right side to tied the game at 62 with 5:20 to play, but Napier answered with a jumper of his own to retake a lead the Huskies would not relinquish.
Down 75-71 with a minute to play, the Tigers forced a turnover at the Husky end of the floor, but Joe Jackson left a driving layup-attempt short on the next possession. Connecticut buried six free throws to cushion the lead as the clock finally expired.
Sixth man Michael Dixon led the Tigers with 16 points, but shook his head after a loss that ended the weeklong revelry over his team's upset of Louisville. "I think this is the best league in the country," he said. "They lose two games [to Houston and SMU], then come here and beat us. We're a good team."
Added freshman forward Austin Nichols (13 points, 5 rebounds), "We gotta bounce back. We'll be fine. They were more aggressive than us, and that's definitely got to change. We have to protect home court; that's one of the most important things. We know the fans are excited, and we're excited. It's a little disappointing."
The Huskies shot 57 percent for the game (the Tigers 43 percent) and outrebounded Memphis, 34-27. Shaq Goodwin scored 10 points but pulled down only two rebounds in 26 minutes.
"We had some opportunities where we needed to make some big shots," said Pastner, "and we did not. I was disappointed with our guard rebounding besides Geron Johnson [who had six]. Shaq wasn't as good as he's been; we need him to be better."
The Memphis coach acknowledged the star of the night. "Daniels is a hard matchup. He plays their four spot, or five, and our [big] guys aren't used to [that kind of shooting]. We got sucked in [defensively], and they kicked it out for open threes. We didn't get stops. I was disappointed with our small lineup. They beat us on penetration."
The Tigers' next opponent, alas, is not a recent national champion. In fact, Memphis (now 12-4 overall) will host an intra-city contest when LeMoyne-Owen visits FedExForum Saturday afternoon. Pastner scheduled the game as a promise to the school when an earlier exhibition game was replaced by a preseason scrimmage against another Division I opponent.
It will be an odd break in what's proving to be a rigorous 18-game fire dance through the AAC. "This is a very good league," said senior guard Chris Crawford, who spent his first three college seasons waltzing through C-USA. "But we have a lot more basketball to play. We can't let this loss soak in on us. Gotta regroup and get ready for the next game.