Let's call tonight's Tiger victory a stabilizer.
The country's 23rd-ranked team has spent much of January winning league games on the road (Louisville, Temple) and losing league games at FedExForum (Cincinnati, Connecticut). The schizophrenic performances yielded a 3-2 record in American Athletic Conference play, good for a less-than-impressive fourth place in the standings entering tonight's contest with Houston (also 3-2 in the AAC). To lose a third straight league game at Third and Beale? What's the opposite of stabilizer?
Sophomore Shaq Goodwin scored 12 points in the first five minutes tonight, helping the Tigers seize a 14-4 lead they would not relinquish. Three of Goodwin's early field goals were of the slam-dunk variety, helping Memphis accumulate 11 jams over the course of the game (against a program that gave us, remember, Phi Slamma Jamma so many seasons ago). A 10-3 run to end the first half gave the Tigers a 47-32 lead. Senior guard Michael Dixon hit four of five shots (including two three-pointers) over the first 20 minutes to lead a Tiger offense that shot 61 percent before halftime and 59 percent for the game. Goodwin (20 points) and Dixon (13) were joined by Joe Jackson (18) atop the scoring column for Memphis.
"We played with a sense of urgency today," said Dixon. "We locked in on defense. It was a collective team effort on defense. Our [offensive] game-plan is always to play inside-out, and we did that tonight. A lot of things happen well when you play defense. My teammates put me in position to make plays tonight and I did."
Coming off the bench for an energy boost — again — was senior forward David Pellom. The transfer from George Washington drew two offensive fouls in the first half, hit all three of his field goal attempts, pulled down seven rebounds and dished out a pair of assists — one on a mini-lob to Goodwin for a second-half dunk — in just 16 minutes off the bench.
"We lost two conference games at home, and if you want to be great, you can't do that," said Pellom. "Tonight, I took an early charge and felt amped. We played with a lot of energy from start to finish. If we keep high energy, the sky's the limit for us."
Tiger coach Josh Pastner agreed with Pellom's assessment. "We held a 40-percent three-point shooting team to 14 percent. That was our energy. Everyone who played contributed; there was no slippage. We're a very good basketball team when we play with great energy."
Pastner described a "defensive boot camp" he instituted last Sunday. Over the course of two practices that totaled three-and-a-half hours this week, precisely 15 minutes were devoted to shooting drills. Everything else was defense. The Cougars were limited to 43 percent from the field and were outscored 48-36 in the paint. Houston scored only seven second-chance points.
Cougar star TaShawn Thomas wasn't allowed to make a difference, finishing the game with 14 points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes.
The win improves the Tigers' record to 14-4 (4-2 in the AAC). They remain two games behind league leader Cincinnati (winners tonight over UCF). Memphis will finish a four-game home stand Sunday when the South Florida Bulls (10-9, losers of three straight) come to town. Stability remains the goal.