"I did not see this one coming. We had a great week of practice. Guys were ready to play; fired up. In the first half, and really the majority of the game, we played not to lose, instead of playing to win. We played timid. It's just one of those things."
Memphis coach Josh Pastner looked beaten in addressing the media following Thursday night's drubbing at the hands of the UConn Huskies. Having lost twice to the Huskies already, he should have at least seen a formidable challenge staring his Tigers down as the American Athletic Conference tournament gained steam. The beating was as thorough as any of the nine Memphis has taken this season. For all intents and purposes, the game ended when UConn forward Niels Giffey drained his fifth three-pointer of the game to give his Huskies a 51-33 lead with just under 16 minutes to play. (Connecticut outscored Memphis 21-20 the rest of the way.) With the win UConn becomes the first team to beat the Tigers three times in the same season since Cincinnati beat Memphis four times during the 1991-92 campaign. And for the first time in seven conference tournaments held at FedExForum, the host team will not play in the championship game.
Just how ugly was this affair. Take a deep breath:
• In the first half, Memphis made six field goals and turned the ball over eight times.
• The Tigers trailed by 12 just 13 minutes into the game and by 14 at halftime.
• The four senior guards Pastner has leaned so heavily upon — Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson, and Michael Dixon — combined to miss 28 of 38 shots and handed out a total of three assists.
• The Tigers' two major award winners — Sixth Man Dixon and Rookie of the Year Austin Nichols — were a combined 0 for 10 from the field.
• The Tigers' two big men — Nichols and Shaq Goodwin — combined to take only six shots. Goodwin made one.
• Memphis took 24 more free throws (37-13) than did UConn. Had they made all 17 that they missed, they still would have lost the game by two points.
What is it the Huskies have on the Tigers? Ask the American's Player of the Year, Husky guard Shabazz Napier (a pedestrian 11 points Thursday night): "It's the way Memphis plays defense," he said. "They double-team on a lot of pick-and-rolls, and that leaves guys like Niels open. And we have some great shooters on our squad. If you give them time to shoot the ball, you see what happens."
Giffey was lights out, hitting nine of 11 from the field, and six of eight from three-point range for a game-high 24 points. DeAndre Daniels added 13 and Ryan Boatright 11 for the 21st-ranked Huskies, who will now face 13th-ranked Cincinnati in the American semifinals Friday night. (5th-ranked Louisville will play Houston in the other semi.)
The 19th-ranked Tigers (23-9) are left to ponder how low their seeding for the NCAA tournament will drop, their record now 5-5 this season against ranked opponents. "There were breakdowns in a lot of areas," said Pastner. "They're a great three-point shooting team. Any loss needs to be put on my shoulders." Pastner insisted his team's goal remains to win not one, but two games next week when the NCAA tournament gets underway. Two victories would return Memphis to the Sweet 16 for the first time in five years.
"We have to hold ourselves accountable to make shots," said Johnson. "We've got to get back to the drawing board. No one's gonna give us any sympathy. I'm disgusted with myself. I know we're better than that. The country knows we're better than that."