Not since 2003 — when they played in The Pyramid — had the Memphis Tigers' drawn as large a crowd (of players) for Senior Day as they did in today's regular-season finale at FedExForum. The pregame ceremony stirred 18,289 Tiger fans as it always does, and three of those seniors — Charles Holt, Stan Simpson, and Ferrakohn Hall — received a farewell ovation unlike any they'll ever experience again. For the fourth senior, though, it must have seemed like your average home game . . . just turned up a notch.
"It was the perfect day for me," said that senior, forward D.J. Stephens. "To have all four of us on the court near the end of the game, and getting the win."
The Tigers allowed an overmatched UAB team within a single point (45-44) before erupting for 41 points in a 12-minute span to secure their 27th win of the season and complete a 16-game whitewashing of Conference USA. The win ends the 18th and final regular season for Memphis as members of C-USA. They'll travel to Tulsa next week for the league tournament, opening with a quarterfinal game on Thursday.
"To go 16-0 in league play is special," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after his 102nd win as Memphis coach. "You don't take that for granted. Tremendous win. And the way the season started, with lots of darts and arrows being thrown at us. You appreciate this; it isn't a birthright. We have tremendous young men, academically, socially, and athletically."
Junior guard Joe Jackson did all he could to steal the spotlight from Stephens, falling but a rebound shy of the program's fourth triple-double. Teammate Chris Crawford (who scored a game-high 20 points) pointed out that Jackson wasn't all that far from a quadruple-double: 17 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds, and six steals. "Joe was awesome, with a capital A," said Pastner. "He dominated on 50-50 balls today, and that's what this team is about."
Rounding out the guard-dominated performance for Memphis was junior Geron Johnson with 19 points, four assists, and three steals. As a team, the Tigers picked up 22 assists on the 30 field goals they converted, a percentage that keeps the head coach smiling.
As for Stephens, the Texas native finished one of the most unlikely seasons in Memphis history by scoring 13 points (on five of six shooting) and grabbing eight rebounds and three steals. After the final buzzer, Stephens delivered a parting kiss . . . to the rim on his team's side of the floor.
"Everybody kept telling me to kiss the tiger [logo at midcourt], but that's been done before," said Stephens. "A couple of days ago, Shaq [Goodwin] jumped to see how high his head could get. I went right after him, and when I jumped, I actually looked down at the rim a bit. Man, that was kind of cool. I just wanted to be remembered for something different."
The win ends an annual series between Memphis and UAB that dates back to the 1990-91 season, a series the Tigers have dominated (35-10), but one special to fans of both programs for the connection to the late Hall of Fame coach, Gene Bartow. Did the meaning of the game — and his unique senior moment — make for an emotional afternoon for Stephens?
"I was actually more happy than anything," said Stephens. "To be able to walk out there with the people who brought me into the world, and my girlfriend . . . my future wife. She's pregnant, so in a way she walked out there with our child. For them to be with me in a moment like that, it means a lot."
The Tigers won their second straight Conference USA regular-season championship Saturday with a rather thorough dismantling of the league's second-best team. A midcourt steal followed by a breakaway dunk by junior guard Geron Johnson spurred an 18-3 run to end the first half, giving Memphis a 46-30 lead. Southern Miss would get no closer than 12 the rest of the way as the 21st-ranked Tigers secured their 18th consecutive win and improved to 24-3 on the season.
"To win a conference championship over a two-and-a-half-month period . . . that's not easy to do," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after the game. "Especially when you're picked to win it, and you're getting everyone's best shot. To fight through all the negativity back in November, to stay together and get to this point is a tremendous testament of character to these young men."
Memphis fans likely saw the last of a longtime Tiger rival as Southern Miss will remain in C-USA when the U of M moves to the Big East next season. The victory was the 40th for Memphis in 48 games against the Eagles here in the Bluff City.
Senior guard Dwayne Davis did all he could to keep things tight, scoring 18 points in the first half and 28 for the game. His efforts, though, were thwarted by a Tiger team that shared the ball exquisitely with 25 assists on 29 field goals. It was the fifth time in seven games Memphis has accumulated at least 20 assists. Johnson had seven helpers, Shaq Goodwin five, and Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford four each.
"We're an unselfish team, spreading the ball around to everybody," said Jackson, who added 15 points to his line. "We feed off each other. When you've got four or five guys who can pass, shoot, and dribble, it makes the game easy. We won a conference championship last year, but it's so different. We pay attention to detail better than we did last year. We're more unselfish. There are good teams and bad teams in the conference; Southern Miss is a good one. But we've got to treat everyone like they're good."
Junior guard Chris Crawford heated up late in the first half, hitting four three-pointers to help fuel the burst before halftime. He finished with five treys (tying a career high) and scored 19 points. D.J. Stephens scored 16 points (three more dunks) and blocked five shots. Goodwin added 19 points, his most since the December 5th win over Ohio.
"Two of our goals before the season were a conference championship and an NCAA championship," said Goodwin. "We got one of them, so let's go on to the next. We know we have a team full of scorers, but we have to play together. This is more than basketball. We decided to look at this as something bigger, like life. I'm from out of town, so these are basically my brothers. Every time we go out there, we say 'Play for your brother next to you.' "
Pastner continues to relish the winning streak, the fifth-longest in the proud history of the program. "It shows you how great this program is, so much bigger than any coach or player," he said. "We've got 18 wins in a row. For most teams, that would be the longest in the history of the program. Here, it's fifth. That's crazy. It shows you how great the tradition is here. You're witnessing some beautiful basketball."
The Tigers won't return to FedExForum until March 9th (Senior Day). They travel to Cincinnati for a rare February nonconference tilt against Xavier on Tuesday. They'll then travel to UCF and UTEP before returning home.
NOTE: Pastner said there is a slight chance junior guard Antonio Barton — sidelined with a broken foot — could return for the March 9th game against UAB. More likely, he'll be in uniform when the Tigers play their first game at the C-USA tournament on March 14th.
And sportsmanship prevails.
With five seconds left in tonight's game at FedExForum, Adonis Thomas received a pass from Chris Crawford under the Houston basket, the Cougar defense conceding the final moments of the Tigers' 17th straight victory. With 11 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists, Crawford was a Thomas layup away from the Memphis program's fourth triple-double. Alas, Thomas dribbled out the clock . . . standard protocol under coach Josh Pastner for a secured win.
"I feel bad for Chris," said Thomas after the game, but with a smile on his face. "We were joking about it in the locker room. We try to be respectful of the other team. But Chris is such a team player, gets us all involved. I apologized to him. I just tried to do the right thing."
Crawford's performance was merely one of four stand-out efforts for the U of M tonight, each of them needed as the pesky Cougars lingered until the final minute of play. Junior center Tarik Black came off the bench (like Crawford) and had his best game in two months, hitting seven of nine field-goal attempts for 15 points in 23 minutes. (Let it be said that Crawford and Black as a tandem give Memphis the best bench in Conference USA.) Thomas scored 20 points for the second straight game (22) and D.J. Stephens contributed 14 points (10 of them coming on dunks) and 10 rebounds.
The Tigers seemed to take control early with a 13-0 run that gave them a 25-15 lead just over 11 minutes into the game. But the Cougar trio of Danuel House (16 points), TaShawn Thomas (20), and Joseph Young (22) kept the visitors close enough to make things uncomfortable for Pastner and his staff. A jumper by House four minutes into the second half tied the game at 39. A Crawford trey and Black's inside presence, though, helped the Tigers extend their lead to 15 with just under eight minutes to play. A Thomas dunk closed the gap to six points (75-69) with 55 seconds left, but the Tigers made their free throws down the stretch (two from Thomas and two from Crawford) to seal the win.
Black's emergence — in a season of ups and downs for the captain — could prove integral to any postseason hopes the 21st-ranked Tigers might harbor. "When Tarik gets his game going, it opens up the perimeter and allows us to attack," said Thomas. "But when he's dominating like he was tonight, we want to feed him the ball to reward him for his hard work on defense."
Crawford knows more assists will come if Black is scoring inside. "I kept telling guys to keep going back to Tarik, consecutively," said the junior from Sheffield High School. "He's been dominant in practice lately, and that just carried over into the game. He was really aggressive, unstoppable down there."
The win improves the Tigers' record to 23-3. Memphis can clinch C-USA's regular season title with a win over Southern Miss Saturday at FedExForum and is now four games away from a spotless (16-0) farewell tour of C-USA.
"It's not a birthright to win 15 games in a row. It's not a birthright to have another 20-win season. It's not a birthright to win 10 league games."
Having won his first game since November with his team in the national rankings (#22), Tiger coach Josh Pastner opened his postgame press conference with heavy emphasis on the challenges his club has faced over the last three months, among them the continued perception that Memphis is fattening its record against inferior Conference USA competition. "If you don't believe this league is good — that everybody is good — then you're living in the Eighties or Nineties," he said. "Hey, I loved that music, too, but it's the past."
The Tigers enjoyed their second impressive, start-to-finish beat-down of a team considered a legitimate threat to their untarnished conference record (now 10-0). After falling behind 8-2, Memphis awoke with a pair of thunderous dunks from senior D.J. Stephens (including the 100th of his Tiger career), one on which he seemed to turn right in midair before slamming the ball through the net. Tied at 19 with eight minutes to play before halftime, the score turned permanently in the Tigers' favor as the Memphis defense continued to stifle Knight stars Keith Clanton (three for 10 from the field for 10 points) and Isaiah Sykes (17 points but nine turnovers). With 10 points and five boards from Stephens, the Tigers entered the break with a 42-36 lead.
Adonis Thomas scored seven points in the first four minutes of the second half to extend the Tiger lead to double figures (55-42). Shortly after a Kasey Wilson three-pointer brought UCF within eight, the Tigers erupted with a 22-4 blitz, sparked by three consecutive treys, two from Chris Crawford and one from Johnson. The Tigers cruised to a 22-point win despite the Knights finishing the game on an 11-2 run.
Johnson was again central to the fast pace the Tigers played, finishing all too close to the program's fourth triple-double (19 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists). With the offense seeming to flow through his hands, the Tigers outscored UCF 27-7 on fastbreak points.
"We're finding out our identity," said Johnson. "We're really devoted to being a transition basketball team. Pushing the pace. We've got some of the fastest guys in the country: Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Adonis, myself. But you've got to finish plays. You don't want a million-dollar look and a one-cent basket. Coach [Damon] Stoudamire talks about the 'hockey assist,' the extra pass. Whether it's me or someone else [making that pass], it doesn't matter."
Jackson was on the receiving end of a few of Johnson's transition passes, finishing with 21 points and 10 assists himself. The junior guard — presented with a commemorative ball before the game for recently scoring his 1,000th career point — converted 10 of his 13 field-goal attempts. Jackson likes the national ranking, and said it's one more motivating factor for a veteran-led team.
"We can handle [the ranking]," he said. "This is a new situation for us, and it may work out for the best. We've got a lot more games; if we can just go on a run, we can do something that other [Memphis] teams have done, but would be special for this team right here."
As for the furious pace of the last two games [the Tigers scored 89 points in beating Southern Miss last Saturday], Jackson likes the formula. "It's like a hot potato out there . . . guys giving [the ball] up," he said. "Everybody's getting out early, making plays. It makes the game easy."
Thomas enjoyed his third straight game in double figures with 17 points. Crawford added 10 points and four assists. Memphis outrebounded the Knights, 40-22.
Next for the Tigers will be a road game at Marshall on Saturday. The Tigers edged the Thundering Herd, 73-72, on January 26th.
Tulsa coach Danny Manning enjoyed his share of dominant games during his All-America playing days at Kansas. So the first-year head coach surely appreciated what Tiger senior D.J. Stephens did Saturday afternoon: four dunks, a three-pointer, four blocks, nine rebounds, and a career-high 15 points. That was in the first half.
The Tigers' surpassing "energy guy" was hardly needed in the second half, as the U of M extended a 17-point lead and finished off its most complete game of the year, the team's 12th straight victory. Stephens finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds, and five blocks in merely 16 minutes of game action. The two dunks and two jumpers he delivered in the game's first five minutes — staking the Tigers to an 11-3 lead — were really all the home team needed.
"That was a good 40 minutes of basketball, a good win for us," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner. "We still have room for growth, but we got the W. We put two halves together."
Pastner wouldn't allow his squad — notorious this winter for taking large leads then watching them disappear — to backpedal against an outsized Tulsa team. Barely two minutes into the second half, he didn't like what he saw, so substituted five players from the bench as a single unit. "I didn't feel like we came out with the intensity we should," said Pastner, "so I made the change. And that group extended the lead."
That group — Tarik Black, Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton, Ferrakohn Hall, and freshman Damien Wilson — delivered a 15-5 run over the game's next six minutes to extend the Tiger lead to 27 (66-39). The last 12 minutes of the game were essentially garbage time. But garbage time dominated by the Tigers.
"We play a lot better when we go out there and have fun as a team," said Stephens. "We play our best basketball when we look to help the next guy out and we play together. A lot of shots were falling for us today. [The Tigers hit a season-high 12 three-pointers.] We showed everybody that we could put two halves together. Everybody was just having fun. It's like a domino effect."
Supplementing Stephens' starring role were Barton (a game-high 16 points and four treys), Crawford (12 points, three treys, and five assists), and Wilson, who scored five points and grabbed five rebounds in 16 minutes, his most playing time of the season. Ten Tigers played at least 10 minutes and six of them hit at least one three-pointer.
Memphis dished out 25 assists on 32 made field goals and outrebounded the Golden Hurricane, 45-33. If there was a down note, it was junior guard Joe Jackson's streak of games with at least 10 points ending at 16 (he had six in 22 minutes).
With his team now 7-0 in league play, Pastner again defended the integrity of Conference USA, emphasizing that margin of victory (like today's) can be nice, but it's all about accumulating wins, however they come. "Winning 12 straight games is not easy," he emphasized. "There are no freebies. We haven't hit our ceiling . . . we need to keep improving."
"We have to stay focused on the defensive end, and execute on the offensive end," added Stephens. "We've got a big week coming up, with two road games against two good teams. But today was the first game I've seen everybody happy, everybody having fun. We've won games, but we haven't won them the way we're supposed to. Today's game . . . that's what I've been talking about, winning the way we're supposed to."
The Tigers (18-3) travel to SMU for their next game Wednesday night. They'll play at Southern Miss a week from today before returning to FedExForum to face UCF on February 13th.
"They're better than their record. They've got a great offensive rebounding team; they hurt us on weak side rebounding. They've got good players. Stop looking at records. Each game, by itself . . . we've got tremendous parity."
Tiger coach Josh Pastner was in all-out defend-Conference USA-mode following his team's narrow victory this afternoon over Marshall, the same Thundering Herd team that lost by 56 points at Southern Miss last Wednesday. A Thundering Herd team (now 9-12) that has also lost by 28 at Kentucky and 37 at Ohio (a team Memphis beat by 26). Despite starting a pair of all-conference candidates in DeAndre Kane and Dennis Tinnon, Marshall has now lost six of its last eight games and four straight against Memphis (including last year's C-USA tournament championship).
Memphis junior Joe Jackson had a six-word answer when asked how a team as seemingly talented as Marshall can be losing so regularly: "They don't have a point guard."
The Tigers, in contrast, do have a point guard, and Jackson emphasized such with his 15th consecutive game in double figures on the scoreboard (16 points). He missed a late free throw that made the game tighter than it might have been (Geron Johnson missed two), but led the Tigers with five assists and only had two turnovers.
Memphis took a 10-point lead on a Tarik Black put-back 13 minutes into the game, but then watched the Herd rally on a 13-3 run to tie the game at 31. An Adonis Thomas trey and acrobatic leaner from Jackson helped the Tigers finish the first half on a 7-2 run and a 38-33 lead.
Marshall kept the score within four or five points throughout the second half, closing within one inside the final two minutes, but never taking the lead. Two Black free throws gave the Tigers a 70-67 lead with 1:18 to play, but the junior center was called for goaltending at the other end to again bring Marshall within a point.
Kane missed two short field-goal attempts inside the final minute and, after Johnson missed those two free throws, Elijah Pittman missed a three-point attempt from the right wing that would have given Marshall the lead with 13 seconds left. Chris Crawford grabbed the rebound, was fouled, and hit both shots, which proved critical when Kane buried a three-pointer as time expired. (Pastner protested the clock management, as 1.9 seconds was left when the Herd inbounded the ball after Crawford's free throws.)
Adonis Thomas (15 points) and Shaq Goodwin (11) joined Jackson in double figures for the Tigers while Kane led Marshall with 22 points and D.D. Scarver added 20. Each team hit seven three pointers. Marshall had 39 rebounds to the Tigers' 33.
"It's not easy to win ten in a row," emphasized Pastner. "We've gotten better since the Bahamas [in November]. We've got to keep it going. There is a lot of basketball to be played. The next game — at East Carolina — is the most important game."
"We knew this was going to be a battle," added Black. "No matter what happened the game before. They have so much size and length on the inside; most teams don't have that. It was tough. They won 50-50 balls. They're a tough team to play against." Black had eight points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench.
The Tigers, now 16-3, travel to East Carolina next Wednesday, then return to FedExForum next Saturday to face Tulsa. (Memphis and Marshall will meet again in West Virginia on February 16th.)
The Tigers discovered one surefire way to stop their recent trend of allowing big leads to slip away: Let the opponent take the big lead.
Having lost 20 game in a row in its series with Memphis, Tulane took the floor tonight at FedExForum with a noticeable energy charge. Led by sharp-shooting guard Ricky Tarrant, the Green Wave hit five of its first eight shots to take a 13-5 lead, then stretched the margin to 15 (32-17) with just over seven minutes to play until halftime. Only shut-down defense in the second half and a return, with impact, from one of their veteran leaders allowed the Tigers to pull away late for their ninth straight win, and their 90th in four years under coach Josh Pastner.
"Our crowd [15,466] was terrific," said Pastner after the game. "They gave us a great lift; they led the way. We got stops when we needed to. Held them to under 30 percent [shooting] in the second half. And we had 20 assists on 26 made field goals. Nice to get away with a victory."
Junior center Tarik Black did not play in the first half, a penalty for, as Pastner described it, his "negative attitude" during Saturday's win over Harvard. He entered the game with just over three minutes played in the second half and the Tigers down six points (41-35). They outscored Tulane by 17 the rest of the way, with Black scoring 10 (and picking up four fouls) in 16 minutes on the floor.
"Tarik's got a great spirit," said Pastner. "Everyone who knows him knows what a good young man he is. These are college guys, and mistakes are going to be made. We're in a public situation, where everyone knows what you did. Let's not blow it out of proportion. No one broke any law. It's very, very minor. Just one of those consequences. In the second half he did his job and helped us get a W."
Junior guard Geron Johnson led Memphis with 18 points (his second-highest total of the season), with four coming on a pair of alley-oop dunks from Joe Jackson. He added five assists and four steals, but could not explain the up-and-down nature of his team's play of late.
"I'm not a guy with excuses," Johnson said, "so maybe we're just a one-half team right now. But that's what we're working on in practice. I know we won't quit [when behind], but I wasn't worried about that, I'll be honest with you."
Joe Jackson scored 16 points for the Tigers (his 14th straight game with at least 10) and Chris Crawford was productive for a second straight game with 14 points (three treys) and six assists, one of them a beautiful feed late in the game that led to a D.J. Stephens slam dunk.
Pastner gave credit to Tulane coach Ed Conroy and his team for earning that early lead. "We allowed them to play catch," said Pastner. "They dictated tempo and punched us in the mouth. It wasn't until we turned up our intensity that we made our run." Josh Davis scored 13 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 39 minutes for the Green Wave. Tulane managed to out-rebound the Tigers, 33-29, but Memphis had a distinct advantage in scoring off the bench (26-8), thanks to Crawford and Black.
The Tigers (15-3) finish their current three-game homestand Saturday with a 1 p.m. tip-off against Marshall, the team Memphis beat in last year's C-USA tournament championship game.
The Tigers took a big lead today against an overmatched team. Then halftime came. (However familiar this opening paragraph may seem, please keep reading.) After the break, Memphis allowed that overmatched team to go on an extended run while the Tiger offense played sporadic basketball. The U of M salvaged a win with a late burst of energy (and, not incidentally, a few timely field goals).
Today's victim was Harvard, but the Crimson merely belongs in a club of Tiger opponents that could bond over big leads erased. Tennessee. East Carolina. The club is growing.
"We won this game with our defense," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after the game, his team's eighth straight victory finally secured. We were not in a rhythm offensively [the Tigers shot 39.3 percent from the field]. Harvard came into the game ranked third in the country in three-point shooting, and we held them to 25 percent [four for 16]. We hit another big-time skid offensively, but we won with defense."
Playing the program's first contest against an Ivy League opponent in more than 24 years, the Tigers raced out to a 20-point lead over the game's first 15 minutes. Despite junior guard Geron Johnson being limited to four minutes by a pair of fouls, the Tigers entered the break up a comfortable 16 points (32-16). But after the break, of course, lulls happen. At least to this team.
When Crimson point guard Siyani Chambers converted a layup just over 12 minutes into the second half, Harvard tied the game at 44, a cool 28-12 run in coach Tommy Amaker's hip pocket. Sophomore forward Steve Moundou-Missi's dunk a minute later gave the defending Ivy champs a 46-44 lead and had the crowd of 16,204 at FedExForum grinding their teeth over another lead blown right before their eyes. On the next Tiger possession, senior D.J. Stephens converted his own slam. When Joe Jackson dropped in a layup on a fastbreak pass from Johnson with five minutes to go, Memphis took the lead right back. Junior guard Chris Crawford scored eight of the Tigers' final ten points (including two more dunks) to provide a somewhat deceiving final margin of victory.
"We had some tremendous stops there at the end," said Crawford. "It helped us out. But we're struggling with turnovers [Crawford had four of the Tigers' 16]. If we take care of the ball and make shots, we'll be good."
As for the familiar — and extended — midgame lull, Crawford admitted to the possibility he and his teammates get complacent with a big lead. "We need to stay focused, keep our foot down [on the pedal]," he said. "Big leads are nice." Crawford's 13 points led the Tigers and were his most since late November.
"Chris has been working hard," said Jackson, who added 10 points, four assists, and four steals. "It's a long season. It's gonna happen for him. Everybody goes through a spell for a couple of games. You just push through it, and bounce back."
Like Crawford, Jackson doesn't want to forsake big early leads, but he'd like events to unfold a bit less dramatically. "We get up, and teams come back," he said. "It's nice to be up. I'd rather we're up than be playing from behind. As long as we win the game. We've got to work on it. We were a second-half team last year. Everything's gonna come together."
"You're gonna have ruts," emphasized Pastner, "when you're out of whack offensively. That's when you have to rely on defense."
Overall, Memphis held the Crimson to 37.5 percent from the field and won the rebounding battle, 42-28. Memphis grabbed 12 steals and blocked eight shots. Four of those blocks were delivered by Stephens, who added 10 points and eight rebounds despite bruising his left elbow on a fall in the second half. Freshman forward Shaq Goodwin added 11 points, eight rebounds, three blocks, and three steals.
The Tigers improve to 14-3 with the win and return to Conference USA play Tuesday night when Tulane comes to town.
NOTES: Despite a size advantage over the Crimson forwards and Goodwin saddled with four fouls, junior center Tarik Black only played four minutes in the second half. He was one of five from the field in 12 minutes for the game. "We don't have time to wait," said Pastner when asked about Black's current role on the team. "The caravan's moving forward. I'm not going to babysit during the game. If you're not producing, you're going to sit."
Joe Jackson's first jump shot was nothing but net. Shaq Goodwin scored on a put-back in traffic. And, of course, D.J. Stephens made the banners in FedExForum ripple with a breakaway dunk from above. Before a crowd of 15,341 could dry themselves off for the U of M's Conference USA opener, the Tigers had a 39-12 lead over the East Carolina Pirates (a team that entered the game with nine wins, having lost by just six to North Carolina).
Then Shamarr Bowden happened. And Robert (son of Ralph) Sampson happened. And 21 straight points later, the Tigers' lead was merely 39-33. Over the game's final 17 minutes, ECU would get no closer than five points, but the defending C-USA champs were forced to play, yes, a 40-minute game.
"We're not playing high school teams," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after his team completed the schizophrenic victory. "This is Division I college basketball, and it's a game of runs. We're not a finished product. We got sloppy, didn't keep it simple. If you don't take away the three-point shot [East Carolina made nine of 21 attempts], a game can change like that. We have to get better at protecting leads."
Jackson scored a game-high 15 points, his tenth straight outing with double figures. Stephens grabbed 11 rebounds, blocked three shots, and scored six points in 23 minutes. Goodwin was the only other Tiger in double figures on the scoreboard, with 12. The Tiger offense played a choppy game, with only 12 assists on 28 made field goals. Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton, and Tarik Black combined for 21 points off the bench.
While the Tigers were all smiles after the final buzzer, talk centered on that 21-point ECU run that bridged halftime. "When we get a lead, we have to be able to sustain it," said Jackson. "Keep playing hard. It's an adjustment we have to make, and we'll work on it."
Added Goodwin, "That game was really physical. We know we have the quick guards, but we have to have a big-man presence inside. [Memphis outscored the Pirates 40-16 in the paint.] We have to stay locked in and not let teams get back in the game with the three-point shot."
"We lost our man late in the shot clock," noted Adonis Thomas, who was held to seven points in 30 minutes (on two-of-eight shooting). "Gotta stay focused."
Even with the lengthy run, East Carolina's two stars weren't allowed to break out, Miguel Paul finishing with 10 points and Maurice Kemp with 11.
"We took our foot off the pedal," said Pastner. "And we can't do that. We're everyone's World Series, everyone's Super Bowl. But in the end, we got the win. Better to be 1-0 in the league than 0-1."
The Tigers travel to UAB for their next game Saturday night.
Can a six-point victory be more deflating than a nine-point loss? Five days after losing to sixth-ranked Louisville, the Tigers tested the riddle tonight at FedExForum with a listless win over a Lipscomb team that had lost by 34 to Belmont. And by 46 to Ole Miss. Sophomore forward Adonis Thomas returned to form with a game-high 18 points (and seven rebounds) and Geron Johnson followed a scoreless first half with 10 points in the second to help Memphis to its seventh win of the season. Just ditch the game tape.
"This was a clunker," said coach Josh Pastner after the game. "That wasn't our team out there. We're missing free throws left and right, we didn't have energy. But we found a way to win. There's no excuse for us to have an emotional letdown [after the Louisville game]." Which is to say, there was a noticeable emotional letdown for the home team.
The first half saw five lead changes, the Tigers forcing 16 turnovers but only able to score five points off the Bison miscues. A three-point halftime lead for the U of M was erased in the first two minutes of the second half and the game was tied at 41 with seven minutes left in the game. Lipscomb center Stephen Hurt threw his considerable weight around inside, scoring 15 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. His final field goal of the game drew the Bisons within four points (56-52) with 1:20 left in the game, but the margin wouldn't get any closer.
The crowd of 15,454 left the building with the kind of applause you might hear during first-round play of a golf tournament. "The energy level was low," said Tiger center Tarik Black, who scored only four points but led Memphis with nine rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench. "I'm not sure why. But it's not a light switch; you can't just turn it on."
Low energy often partners with diminished focus. The Tigers missed 18 of 39 free throws, dramatically off their rate of 72 percent entering the game. Shaq Goodwin and Black combined to make only five of 18 attempts.
"It was tight and tense early," said Thomas. "After all the turnovers  against Louisville. We gave them too many second-chance points. It was ugly. We've got to get out in transition, and we weren't able to do that."
The Tigers' high-flying, one-man energy booster — senior D.J. Stephens — was limited to nine minutes with various bumps and bruises. (He's on pace to set a single-season record for falls from a height of four feet or higher.) Junior guard Chris Crawford missed all six of his field-goal attempts (five of them from long range), but managed a career-high seven steals. Joe Jackson added 15 points and Goodwin had 11 points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes.
"Adonis has been working individually with Coach [Damon] Stoudamire," noted Pastner. "And intensely. It's helped him. As for Chris, I liked his body language. He's gotta make shots. He was wide open, and he has to take those. He's a shooter. It's a confidence thing."
The Tigers have eight days before Oral Roberts comes to town. Eight days to find a new (or misplaced) energy resource. For now — at 7-3 — a team enjoys Christmas break not all that sure what exactly it has under the tree.
"I believe we're really close to being great," emphasized Pastner. "But don't include this game. This was not us."
The 6th-ranked Louisville Cardinals did what villains do. They stayed in the locker room for the pregame national anthem. They took the floor dressed, head to toe, in black. With hoods on. Then, after teasing a FedExForum crowd of 18,392 by falling behind 16 points, the Cardinals got nasty after halftime, forced 24 turnovers (two more than their average), and outscored the Tigers by 19 points over the game's final 12 minutes. Star guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva each scored 19 points for Louisville and neither led the visitors in scoring (Chane Behanan had 22). The Cardinals made 38 of an astounding 46 free throw attempts to win a game in which they scored eight fewer field goals than their hosts.
"We didn't put a whole game together," said Tiger center Tarik Black, who scored 21 points in 22 minutes, but grabbed only two rebounds. "They're a great team, obviously. But they didn't do anything out there that made us lose the game. It was on us. When the refs start to control the game, it's tough to get into a rhythm. But that's on us."
The officials did what they could to remind anyone watching that there was a third team on the floor. (It should be noted that Mike Stuart and John Cahill worked the Final Four last April.) A total of 53 fouls were called (33 of them on Tiger players), with five Tigers hit with two before halftime. By the end of the game, five Tigers had fouled out, the most damaging being Geron Johnson, who left the game with just over five minutes to play and the Tigers down, 65-60. (Johnson scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 27 minutes while helping to hold Louisville's Smith to three-for-eleven shooting from the field.)
Tiger coach Josh Pastner refused to comment on the officiating, citing Conference USA regulations, but acknowledged his substitution pattern became one of protecting his players in foul trouble, as opposed to strategic replacements or energy boosters. "Can you play man with Geron Johnson with four fouls?," he asked. "There's really no rhyme or reason. You don't want to take too many guys out in foul trouble, because you still want to win the game. They won because of two things: they made more free throws than we attempted  and they scored 29 points off our turnovers."
Memphis raced out to a 25-9 lead over the game's first 10 minutes, largely behind the elevated play of senior forward D.J. Stephens, who started for the first time this season. One sequence saw Stephens block a Cardinal's jump shot on the defensive end, then slam home an alley-oop from Chris Crawford at the other end for an 11-point Tiger lead. His three-pointer from the right corner gave the Tigers that 16-point lead, but with almost 30 minutes left to play in the game.
The Tigers scored the last six points of the first half to lead by seven (35-28) at halftime. When Johnson followed a three-pointer with a thunderous breakaway dunk (after stealing the ball from the Cardinals' Kevin Ware), Memphis led 54-44 not quite eight minutes into the second half. Over the next two-and-a-half minutes, though, Louisville scored 13 unanswered points, long-distance connections from Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock keying the run. After missing seven of eight three-point attempts in the first half, the Cardinals hit six of nine in the second.
Joe Jackson missed two free throws with the Tigers down six and 2:40 to play and Black missed single attempts with the Tigers down eight and five, respectively, in the game's waning minutes. Jackson scored a game-high 23 points and dished out a game-high eight assists, but also led both teams with eight turnovers. Memphis has now turned the ball over 47 times in its last two games.
Tiger sophomore Adonis Thomas returned to action after missing most of the team's last game with an eye injury. But he was not a factor, scoring four points and pulling down four rebounds in 33 minutes. In a game dripping with fouls, Thomas didn't take a single free throw.
"We need him to get going," said Pastner. "I want him to get aggressive. To drive the ball and get to the line, and rebound. He's gotta do it. Once he gets going . . . he's just gotta produce. We'll be a better team. He's gotta get it done, and he knows it, too."
The loss drops the Tigers' record to 6-3 and leaves them in the familiar position of having to claw their way toward a respectable NCAA seed (presuming a berth, of course) with no opponent of Louisville's caliber left on the schedule. Pastner must now motivate his team — and a rather large fan base — for three more home games before the new year: Lipscomb (next Thursday), Oral Roberts, and Loyola-Maryland.
"Defensively, we're a better team than we were last year," said Thomas. "And we have so many weapons on offense, we'll be okay. We've got to focus on rebounding, getting out in transition to score."
Added Jackson, "If we can get everything clicking for 40 minutes, we'll have a scary team."
That magic word: if.
The Tigers started this afternoon's game as though breakfast hadn't quite settled. The Austin Peay Governors were the sharper team just after the noon tip-off, taking an 8-3 lead and holding a 10-8 advantage at the first media timeout, 4:16 into the contest.
Then Geron Johnson entered the game. Over a two minute stretch, the junior guard snatched a defensive rebound to start a fast break, delivered an alley-oop pass to D.J. Stephens for an emphatic dunk, and grabbed an offensive rebound that he converted into two points off the glass for a 16-10 Tiger lead. The game, for all intents and purposes, was already over.
"[Geron] always brings good energy, at the offensive and defensive ends," said freshman forward Shaq Goodwin, who was limited to four points but grabbed eight rebounds, dished out five assists and had four steals. Goodwin and Johnson connected for the play of the game early in the second half. Grabbing one of those steals, Goodwin lobbed the ball from well behind midcourt, over the head of Johnson as the junior guard sprinted the other way. The ball bounced within a few feet of the basket before Johnson grabbed it in midflight and softly delivered the ball off the glass and into the hoop.
The Johnson show also included a pair of steals — one in the Austin Peay backcourt, the other in the paint on the Tigers' defensive end — sandwiched around a dunk. His final stat line for the fifth game of his college career: 14 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals in 28 minutes off the bench.
"I'm comfortable, but there's a lot more work I can do," said Johnson after the game. "We should see some more things. In junior college, I turned the ball over too much. I had three tonight, and that's not good. It's all about ball pressure, and staying conditioned. Guarding Joe Jackson in practice . . . that's tough."
Junior center Tarik Black again came off the bench, now two games after a one-game suspension for violating team rules in practice. He led the home team with 18 points but uncharacteristically missed five field-goal attempts, including a few layups. Jackson scored 12 points, but had six of the Tigers' 23 turnovers. Antonio Barton added 10 points off the bench and senior D.J. Stephens brought his typical energy boost with 10 points and 9 rebounds in 18 minutes. Stephens blocked a shot so emphatically in the second half that the slap could be heard on press row. Overall, the Tiger bench outscored Austin Peay's, 57-7.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner emphasized that every win is a good win, but noted the turnovers and Austin Peay's field-goal percentage (50 percent from the field, 75 percent from three-point range) as worthy of concern. "We were trying to play so fast, [the turnovers] just happened," said Goodwin. "They weren't forced. We'll start working on that Monday."
"Our defensive intensity and pressure was really good," said Pastner. "We gotta take care of the ball better, though. There was really no flow to the game, up and down."
Pastner nodded to his team's most obvious energy source for a second straight game. "Geron's a high-motor guy," said the coach. "I'm wired as a human being; an energy giver. When I see guys wired like that, it gives me more pep in my step. It's contagious. It's a really positive thing."
The Tigers now have a full week to prepare for 5th-ranked Louisville, the program's preeminent historical rival. The Cardinals will play at FedExForum next Saturday for the first time in more than seven years. "We're calling for a blue-out next Saturday," said Pastner. "The whole reason this game is happening is for the fans. It's a give-back to the fans, after all they've done for us. I have great respect for Coach [Rick] Pitino. He was our biggest advocate for getting us into the Big East. They're a tremendous program."
NOTES: • Tiger forward Adonis Thomas left the game after just four minutes when he was hit in the eye by a stray elbow from Austin Peay's Chris Horton. (A flagrant-one technical was called on the play, meaning the act was judged intentional but not worthy of ejection.) Pastner said Thomas suffered a cut to one of his eyelids and actually his eyeball, resulting in blurred vision. Tiger trainer Brad Anderson said Thomas could play if needed, but he remained on the bench for precautionary reasons and is seeing an eye doctor this afternoon. • Governors guard Travis Betran played a tremendous game, hitting 9 of 15 shots (including five of six from long range) for a game-high 27 points. • Memphis had five players with at least three turnovers: Jackson, Goodwin, Johnson, Black, and Chris Crawford.
And a fan base exhaled.
On what amounted to Newcomers Night at FedExForum, the Memphis Tigers rode the high-octane play of Shaq Goodwin and Geron Johnson to a much-needed win over a team that less than nine months ago played in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. Freshman forward Goodwin came up one rebound short of his second straight double-double (17 points, 9 rebounds), while Johnson — the junior transfer kicked off his high school team and two junior-college programs — somehow upstaged him with 21 points in 29 minutes off the bench. Junior point guard Joe Jackson — the grizzled veteran among this bunch — scored 10 points while adding five assists and five steals to the biggest win of the Tigers' young season.
"When Joe plays like that," said coach Josh Pastner, "it adds a pep to my step. I loved our energy tonight. We're not going to be a methodical team. We have to bring energy, and we did tonight against a very good team."
The crowd of 15,669 can say they were at Johnson's official coming-out party. The native of Dayton, Ohio, sat out the first three games of the season for having accepted education-based benefits at his previous school, but since taking the floor for the Tigers' final game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, he's been one more energy booster for Pastner's club. Johnson fueled a 15-5 run over a six-minute stretch of the first half that turned a three-point Tiger deficit into a seven-point lead, one they would not relinquish for the rest of the game. He scored the last field goal before halftime on an acrobatic drive to the basket, finishing with a left-handed scoop shot last seen during Derrick Rose's lone college season in Memphis (2007-08).
"He changed the tempo of the game," said Pastner. "And he loves defense." Johnson helped control Ohio's perimeter game, the Bobcats making only six of 25 three-point attempts (24 percent), well under their season average of 40 percent. D.J. Cooper scored 19 points for the visitors but Jon Smith (12) was the only other Bobcat in double figures.
As for Goodwin, the Georgia product merely scored the Tigers' first 10 points of the second half . . . in three minutes and 40 seconds. Following a trey and dunk from Johnson, the Tigers led 51-37 with just under 15 minutes to play and never again saw their lead below ten points. Goodwin entertained questions after the game about one dunk attempt that went through the rim, bounced off his head . . . and back through the rim to discount two points. "At first I didn't know it," said Goodwin. "I feel like they should count that, because the ball had to go through the cylinder."
"We ran our system," added Goodwin. "We ran our plays, and I was in the right place at the right time." Cliches aside, Goodwin earned his dunks — those he converted — by running the floor and being in position for fastbreak feeds from Jackson, Johnson, and Chris Crawford. He also hit eight of ten free throws. Goodwin welcomed the game's frenetic pace and all of his 28 minutes. "I looked at Coach [Pastner], and he said 'Dig in.' So that's what I did."
Junior center Tarik Black returned to big cheers after a one-game suspension for disciplinary reasons. He scored on a dunk shortly after entering the game midway through the first half and grabbed three rebounds in 12 minutes. But this was a night for new faces at Third and Beale. Pastner especially welcomed the positive vibe Johnson brought to the arena.
"He was being a follower," said Pastner after the game in reflecting on Johnson's past transgressions. "He needs structure and discipline in his life. He's a good guy, and he's unselfish . . . off the court, too. He knows that everything he does, he'll be held accountable. There is no margin for error, and he appreciates that: the structure and discipline. [Johnson has a midnight curfew, seven days a week.] Life lessons like time management will help him later in life. Basketball can be an avenue for that."
As for beating a team that entered the game with a 6-1 record, and relieving a fan base hungry for a win over a team with credentials, Johnson was matter-of-fact. "We need each other to achieve the goals we have," said Johnson. "I'm still learning. This game was no more important than any other. Austin Peay's gonna be a big game, then Louisville. They're all important. [Ohio's] a great team; it's a good victory for us."
The Tigers (5-2) return to FedExForum Saturday for a noon tip-off against Austin Peay. Noted Pastner, "I don't want to hear anything about Louisville."
"We had to get the crowd back tonight," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after a form-holding drubbing of the UT-Martin Skyhawks. "That was on us. Dive six rows into the bleachers, whatever needs to be done. Like in the movie Gladiator: win the crowd."
A relatively light crowd (15,398) witnessed the return to FedExForum of a Tiger team no longer in the nation's Top 25 and, for this night at least, minus Tarik Black, the junior center suspended for a transgression in practice earlier this week. On the heels of the 28-point win over a weak sister of the Ohio Valley Conference, Pastner made it clear once more how he feels about a bad vibe.
"Life is so short for anyone to be negative," he said to the media throng in part responsible, he felt, for the bad vibe. "I don't get it. Positive energy is contagious. Negative energy is like cancer. What I can't have is that negative energy impacting our players."
Whether it was positive or negative energy fueling them, the Tigers who did play tonight did so with a vitality they left behind for three games last weekend in the Bahamas. Adonis Thomas scored the game's first field goal on a jump-hook just inside the free-throw line. Chris Crawford drained four three-pointers — one shy of his career high — before halftime. Thomas slammed home a lob from Joe Jackson with one hand. The Tigers even pulled off a lob-pass-trey buzzer beater before halftime, with Stan Simpson — who started tonight in place of Black — lobbing the ball on an inbounds play to D.J. Stephens, who tapped it to Crawford for the long-distance shot. Memphis entered the break with a 17-point lead, 20 minutes of training to follow — positive energy — on the way to its fourth win of the season.
Freshman Shaq Goodwin filled the void left by Black with his first college double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds). When asked about the feat, Goodwin said, "I didn't even know I had one. I was just in the right place at the right time." When asked about filling Black's shoes, he said, "It wasn't really on my mind. I just wanted to play my game, get my teammates involved."
Junior guard Joe Jackson admitted Black's absence was felt. "We missed him," he said. "We need him out there, getting boards, blocking shots, scoring." Jackson shook his head when asked if there was any chance Black would not return. Having experienced his own off-court issues, Jackson acted like this was merely a temporary distraction. "I've been through things worse than this in college. This is just a week for us to get back to work. We can't feed into the negativity. We've got the talent; it's just about consistency." Jackson scored 13 points against the Skyhawks and dished out eight assists. After a dynamic blocked shot at the defensive end in the first half, Jackson shouted with passion, his face contorted with emotion. The kind of look quite absent during the player's dry spells (like the first two games on Paradise Island).
Playing in his first game at FedExForum, Geron Johnson scored 13 points in 19 minutes, hitting six of 10 shots from the field.
"I was glad of our energy," said Pastner. "I'm a realist as much as I am an optimist. I wouldn't trade our [media] coverage or the intensity of our fan base for anything. I don't take that for granted. We've got a tough game next Wednesday [against Ohio]. We've got to continue to get better. We'll continue the mini-boot camp we started, and go from there."
And the future for Tarik Black? "We will have a resolution tomorrow," said Pastner. "I can assure you that. I gave him time to think about it. He's got to decide. I'd like him to be back."
Progress can be a subjective unit of measurement. Until, that is, a 1-8 football team proceeds to score 125 points over its last three games for its first three-game winning streak in four years. (The last time Memphis finished a season with three consecutive wins: 2005.)
Wideout Marcus Rucker was one of 16 Tiger seniors saluted before today’s season finale against longtime rival Southern Miss. He may remember his two catches for 13 yards in the drubbing of the Golden Eagles. He’ll certainly remember leading the U of M band atop a stepladder during the postgame celebration, then being carried off the field by teammates (along with several of his classmates).
“I’m just thankful for the moment,” said one of those classmates, linebacker Akeem Davis, after the game. “I just want to cherish it. It’s the culmination of a lot of things, a great defense, a great group of coaches. It’s been a long road. I can honestly say that I left everything that I had out there.”
Davis forced a Southern Miss fumble late in the second quarter, leading to the third Tiger touchdown of the period and a 21-3 Memphis lead. Jai Steib’s second score of the game was merely a 13-yard jaunt on a day when the Tiger rushing attack accumulated 275 yards, a high for the season.
The Golden Eagles capitalized on a roughing-the-punter penalty and scored a touchdown four seconds before halftime. The tightened score was mere illusion, though, as the U of M added three more touchdowns in the third quarter to send Southern Miss into winter having lost all 12 games of its 2012 season.
Brandon Hayes scored two of those post-halftime touchdowns — one of them from nine yards, the other from 11 — on his way to 115 yards, his second straight game with more than 100 on the ground. In between came a 38-yard pass-and-run from quarterback Jacob Karam to Alan Cross. Karam finished the game with 162 yards on 12 completions, two touchdown passes and 42 yards rushing (on merely four carries). The Tigers’ junior quarterback finished the season with only three interceptions in 274 attempts.
When asked if he saw this kind of improvement coming, Karam smiled, nodded, and emphasized when the corner was turned. “It wasn’t just this season,” he said. “The improvement since I got here in January [after transferring from Texas Tech], including spring, has been amazing. It’s a collective mindset. Knowing what we need to do.”
More perspective on a season’s astounding turnaround? Junior Tom Hornsey became the first Memphis punter to accumulate 10,000 yards for his career. But he didn’t punt for the first time until the fourth quarter, when the Tigers were leading by 25.
“I’m pleased for our seniors,” said coach Justin Fuente, who finishes his first season in Memphis with a 4-8 record (4-4 in Conference USA play). “Couldn’t be happier for them. The way we finished the season validates the hard work we’ve put them through. This springboards us into our offseason program, which starts tomorrow.”
Fuente emphasized the importance of his team being able to run the ball, to control the line of scrimmage against what proved to be an inferior team. The Memphis defense allowed only 95 yards on the ground and picked up four quarterback sacks.
“It’s good to see the fruits of everybody’s labor,” said Fuente. “Don’t get me wrong. We have a long way to go. I’m glad for the kids to get some rewards. As coaches and adults, we know we’re doing the right thing and doing it the right way. I think the kids thought we were . . . and hopefully now, they’ll know we are.”
When asked what he’ll remember about his first team, Fuente didn’t hesitate. “Their resilience is the biggest thing,” he said. “Think back to UT-Martin [on September 1st] and all that went wrong that night. Then seeing us continue to get better as the season moved along. I wanted us to be better at the end of the year. I knew we were inexperienced. But if we could stay relatively healthy, we could get better.
“There is no easy fix to a football team,” Fuente emphasized. “That’s not the way it goes. It’s a lot of hard work, grinding away. But there are rewards at the end.”
Fuente was asked who this team’s MVP might be. Once again, he didn’t hesitate. “I don’t know how we’ll ever replace Akeem Davis. He was the emotional leader of this team. He’s a special, special young man.”