Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford have played 136 games together as college teammates, which explains the loud and lengthy standing ovation each received in today's pregame Senior Day ceremony. Trouble is, the two native sons played the first half against 18th-ranked SMU like the emotions of the salute hampered their skills.
But second halves count, too. Jackson drilled a three-pointer from near the top of the arc — only his second trey in seven games — to give the Tigers a 33-30 lead just 45 seconds after the break. The field goal (Jackson's second of the contest) finished a 7-0 Memphis run that erased the 30-26 lead SMU held at halftime. Another Jackson three-pointer with 14 minutes to play regained the lead for the U of M (41-39), and helped spur a 20-7 run during which every point came courtesy of a Tiger senior.
Having missed all four of his shots in the first half, Crawford ignited from outside with a three-pointer from the left corner that extended the Memphis lead to 50-41 with 10:50 to play. The pride of Sheffield High School hit two more treys over the next two minutes, stretching the Tiger advantage to 12 points, enough to weather a pair of late Mustang runs and clinch the home team's 23rd win of the season.
"I'm an emotional guy, and it got to me a little bit," said Crawford after the game, acknowledging the weight of his Senior Day moment. "I've been here for some struggles, and a lot of great memories. What's most important, we got the win. I'm a shooter, and my coaches and teammates have a lot of confidence in me. They told me to keep shooting. I saw the first one go in, and we were able to gain some momentum."
The teams each entered the game having lost their last contest, neither having lost two in a row all season. The win avenges a 15-point loss Memphis suffered in Dallas on February 1st and all but assures the 20th-ranked Tigers will complete the regular season having been ranked in the Top 25 every week. Each team finishes the regular season with an overall record of 23-8 and 12-6 in American Athletic Conference play. The Tigers were 5-4 against ranked opponents.
"We were poor offensively in the first half," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner, alluding to the Tigers' 34-percent shooting and 0-for-6 showing from three-point range over the game's first 20 minutes. "But we defended, unlike Thursday [at Cincinnati]. Austin Nichols and Nick King made big plays to allow us to stay close." Nichols scored 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while fellow-freshman King scored seven points and earned seven rebounds in 17 minutes.
"Chris Crawford hit big shots," added Pastner. "Joe Jackson hit a three pointer [early in the second half] and it seemed contagious. We made threes in the second half, which allowed us to get the victory. A great win. Those senior guards really came through for us in the second half."
Michael Dixon hit a short jumper, scored on a layup, and stole the ball during the Tigers' game-shifting run. Limited to 16 minutes by foul trouble, Dixon only scored nine points, ending a streak of 11 in a row with at least 10. After scoring only three points in the first half, Jackson poured in 15 in the second to lead the Tigers. His total of 18 would have been more had he not missed five of nine free throws. The Tigers shot 59 percent in the second half and hit six of 13 three-point attempts.
"I was very frustrated at halftime," said Jackson. "It was a change in attitude for the second half, just be aggressive no matter what they do. Sometimes this team looks methodical out there, and I have to turn on an extra gear. In the first half, we tried to play halfcourt basketball too much; we didn't get any transition points. I told Coach we have to run, to speed up the tempo. I have the ability to do whatever I want to on the court, but sometimes I wait till it's too late. It hurt our team, because they expected me to take over early."
Like Crawford, Jackson admitted an emotional impact on Senior Day. "Today was a great day to be a Tiger," he said. "It's been a long haul for me. I'm blessed for the opportunity. It was a fun atmosphere out there."
"I'm so proud of our seniors," said Nichols. "The way they finished the game reflects their character. It's awesome to be on the court with them, just to have them around."
The Tigers' next game will be in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament. They'll face Connecticut next Thursday night (8 p.m.) at FedExForum. The Huskies won both games against Memphis in the regular season.