Joe Jackson will not forget his 22nd birthday. Neither will 7'1" Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski. For that matter, 18,248 Tiger basketball fans were prepared to line up and light candles after Saturday night's comeback win at FedExForum. The memories will have little to do with the 10 points the Tigers' top scorer put on the board. It's the two points the 6'1" guard kept off the board.
With the Tigers clinging to life, down 42-31 with 13:45 to play, Jackson swept down to the baseline as a backside defender. When Karnowski rose to dunk the ball after a feed from David Stockton, Jackson rose with him and and picked up his second blocked shot of the season (and 19th of his college career). The ensuing roar shook FedExForum, energized a national TV audience, and sparked the U of M toward a 29-12 run to finish the game and hand the 23rd-ranked Zags only their fourth defeat of the season. The victory gives Jackson and fellow seniors Chris Crawford and Trey Draper 100 wins for their careers in blue and gray.
"Shaq Goodwin has a bad habit of gambling," said Jackson with a smile after the game. "He fronted the post, and I knew that was John Stockton's son making that pass. I just tried to make a play on the ball. Honestly, I was trying not to get dunked on; he was so close to the rim. I jumped to block it and I was successful that time. That kind of changed the game."
The Zags took an early lead, allowed Memphis to reel off 11 straight points, then scored 12 straight themselves in a less-than-fluid first half that saw the Tigers shoot 26 percent and the Zags miss seven of eight three-point attempts. (Gonzaga led 25-22 at halftime.) Steady inside play from Karnowski (12 points) and Sam Dower (18 points on 9 of 12 shooting) helped Gonzaga to that 12-point lead before the block heard 'round the Bluff City.
Freshman Nick King stayed on the floor for most of the second half, contributing seven rebounds (four of them on the offensive end) and six points. He was the central character in Tiger coach Josh Pastner's rather brilliant management of a rotation damaged by foul trouble (to Shaq Goodwin), injury (David Pellom's sore knee), and ejection (Dominic Woodson after a flagrant foul against Karnowski early in the second half).
"Nick King came in and gave us a huge spark," said Pastner. "Fifty-fifty balls. He stayed ready, came in, and did his job. He was an energy changer." King's extended minutes came at the expense of senior guard Geron Johnson, who played a season-low 18 minutes.
"That win was based on guts," added Pastner. "We learned from our losses to Cincinnati and UConn, and didn't allow an avalanche after we got hit in the mouth. The fans were tremendous; loudest I've heard it here. And winning in front of that 1973 team was really special. It was as fun a game as I've been involved with."
Living members of the 1972-73 NCAA runner-up team were saluted at halftime, joined by the widows of Gene Bartow and Larry Finch. Considering the late comeback — Memphis outscored the Zags 17-4 over the game's final 5:45 — you had the feeling the spirit of Finch, Bartow, and Ronnie Robinson were very much in play at the corner of Beale and Third.
"This was one of the best wins of the year, and I'm just so happy," said guard Michael Dixon, who scored on a fastbreak layup with just over a minute to play to give the Tigers a 55-54 lead. "A lot of guys stepped up. Nick King. Dominic Woodson. We stuck to the plan. One thing you can always control is your defensive intensity. We didn't fold and came away with the win."
And Jackson's big block? "There were so many huge plays in this game, but that was probably the biggest," said Dixon. "Joe's an athletic guy, but it threw me for a loop. He came out of nowhere. Joe wants to win. He's a warrior and he made a huge play."
The Tigers held Gonzaga — a team that came in averaging 7.8 three-pointers per game — to 2-for-16 shooting beyond the arc. Precisely the prescription for victory, according to Pastner. "I told the guys, 'Do not let them get threes.' They can score all the two-point field goals they want. But we had to take the three out. We were able to stay at home on their shooters. Michael Dixon was really big defensively."
Crawford hit three three-pointers and tied Dixon for a team-high 11 points. (He hit a pair of free throws in the final minute despite a severe calf cramp.) Goodwin added 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks despite being limited to 28 minutes for his four fouls.
The 24th-ranked Tigers improved to 18-5 with the win and will return to American Athletic Conference play Wednesday night when UCF visits FedExForum. For a team and young coach hungry for defining wins, a comeback in early February with ESPN's "GameDay" crew in the building could do wonders come seeding time for the NCAA tournament in March. One blocked shot — by an unlikely defender — could go a very long way.