The path to a high NCAA tournament seed is paved with winning streaks. In beating an undermanned South Florida team Sunday afternoon at FedExForum, the Tigers gained a third consecutive victory in what they hope will be a run that boosts the team back into the nation's top 20, perhaps to the top of the American Athletic Conference, and into the realm of seeds four (or higher) come March's big dance.
Memphis started the game flat, as though the Bulls — entering the game on a three-game losing streak — weren't capable of drawing the best out of the home team. (The Tigers beat USF by 15 on New Year's Eve in Tampa.) With 3:55 to play in the first half, the Tigers led by only two (24-22). But back-to-back three pointers by Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford fueled a 10-0 run to end the half and give the U of M a 34-22 lead. The Tigers' hot shooting had only begun.
Over the course of the first nine minutes of the second half, Memphis hit seven treys, three by Crawford who recently became the fourth player in the program's history to hit 200 for his career. The Tiger lead grew to 23 (56-33) with 12:36 left to play and Memphis coach Josh Pastner was able to expand his rotation the rest of the game.
Crawford finished with 15 points, Jackson added 14 (with seven assists), and sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin had his fourth double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Geron Johnson added eight points and seven assists and freshman Nick King scored ten points in 16 minutes off the bench.
"We've got one of the greatest shooters in the country in Chris Crawford," said Johnson after the game. "This is going to get him started, hopefully like he was in last year's conference tournament. We've got to stay focused. My focus level wasn't up, but that happens in the game of basketball. We don't want to play close games."
While the Tigers missed 15 of 35 free throws (the seventh game this season they've missed at least ten), they picked up 23 assists on 25 field goals, a remarkable percentage that speaks well for the team's collective effort to share the ball. "That's phenomenal," said Johnson. "That's unselfish basketball. We've got great character guys. We're just having fun, working the ball. The open man is the go-to man."
The Tigers held USF to 34-percent shooting from the field. Ridgeway alum Martino Brock led the Bulls with 17 points off the bench. He was the only USF player to reach double figures.
Crawford was pleased with his team's hot outside shooting, but emphasized that it came within the normal flow of a game. "Our inside-out philosophy has been working," said Crawford. "Everybody's so unselfish. When you make a couple of shots, you're gonna take at least one bad three, just to see how it's looking. But we're letting the shots come to us."
When exactly did Crawford know he had a hot hand? "As soon as the first one in the second half went in," he said. As a team, the Tigers hit ten three-pointers for the first time this season.
Now 15-4 (5-2 in the AAC), the 23rd-ranked Tigers will travel to Orlando and face UCF next Wednesday. After that, it's a road tilt with a rising SMU program (February 1) before a return to FedExForum to play Rutgers (February 4).