A cocktail of desperation and determination can do wonders for a college basketball team. Less than 48 hours after their most deflating loss of the season, the Memphis Tigers reeled off an impossibly improbable 15-1 run to end this afternoon's nationally televised game and beat their arch-rivals from Louisville for the second time in less than two months. The victory gives Memphis its first season sweep of the Cardinals since Larry Finch's last season as head coach (1996-97). As the fates would have it, it's the second such sweep by Memphis when the Cardinals were the reigning national champions, as the Tigers beat Louisville three times (including in the Metro Conference tournament) in the 1986-87 campaign.
"We're a veteran team," emphasized Chris Crawford, one of the Tigers' late-game heroes with a three-pointer from the top of the arc that gave Memphis a 68-65 lead with 1:36 to play. "We're going to stay poised regardless of the situation. We've been through a lot. Basketball's a game of runs, and we made the last run to come away with the win."
The Tigers led the entire first half despite 15 points from Louisville's star guard, Russ Smith. Memphis scored the game's first six points and led by as many as seven (27-20) before settling for a 36-31 lead at the break.
But the Cardinals — who entered the contest on a seven-game winning streak — went on a 13-4 run over the first five minutes of the second half. Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell was a man among boys for Louisville, throwing down three alley-oop dunks, one from such heights that the new banner honoring Tiger great Larry Kenon seemed to flutter in the rafters of FedExForum. Harrell's slam following an offensive rebound with 4:44 to play gave the visitors a 65-57 lead.
A driving layup under pressure by Tiger guard Michael Dixon closed the gap to 65-63 with 3:15 left, then Geron Johnson stripped Smith of the ball and drove to the rim for his own layup to tie the score. Crawford connected for his fourth three-pointer of the game and the Tigers hit four of six free throws over the game's last 63 seconds to seal the biggest home win of Tiger coach Josh Pastner's career.
"It was six-on-five because of our fan base," said Pastner. "They were so loud. That was a big-time win, a great bounce-back win against a great team. I didn't sleep until last night [after Thursday's loss at Houston]. There's no better time to hug a win than today."
Memphis hit six of nine three-point attempts while the Cardinals misfired on 19 of 23 shots from behind the arc. And the Tigers won despite getting virtually no offensive production from senior guard Joe Jackson (one for seven from the field) and sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin (one for eleven). Dixon led the U of M with 18 points, his 10th straight game with at least 10 on the scoreboard. Johnson added 15, Crawford 12, and freshman forward Austin Nichols scored 14. Tasked with battling the fearsome Harrell most of the game, Goodwin did pull down 10 rebounds and added four steals and three blocks.
"It's a big win for the city," said Crawford. "We played as a unit. That's definitely one of the biggest threes of my career. I had to knock it down for my teammates."
"We stayed the course," said Dixon. "It paid off. We've got a lot of good players, and a lot of them stepped up today. Louisville's a good team; we were just better today. I have the utmost faith in this team. We have a lot of resiliency. When Chris hit that three, I've never heard a place that loud. And I've played in some big-time arenas. Coach and Chris had a real heart-to-heart after the Houston game. Stay confident."
The loss drops the 7th-ranked Cardinals to 24-5 on the season (13-3 in the American Athletic Conference), while the 21st-ranked Tigers improve to 22-7 (11-5). Memphis holds out hope of gaining the coveted third seed in the AAC tournament, to be played at FedExForum March 12-15. With Louisville departing for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, a potential third game between these two longtime foes (today was their 89th meeting) would carry extra weight.
For now, the Tigers will relish a win over one of their league's heavyweights, while turning their attention toward a rematch with the 11th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats next Thursday in Ohio. The plan moving forward? Says Johnson, "Stay humble and determined."