College football is all about culture. And part of that culture is the haves beating the snot out of the have-nots to start their season. For a second straight season, the Memphis Tigers put 63 points on the board at the Liberty Bowl against a hapless FCS team. Missouri State, alas, managed to score a touchdown, whereas Austin Peay was shut out a year ago. By one measure, then, the University of Memphis football program — culturally speaking — has arrived.
The victory extends the program's winning streak (dating back to last October) to eight games. The significance of such a streak for Memphis? It's safe to say a good portion of tonight's crowd at the Liberty Bowl (41,730) was not alive the last time the Tigers won so many games in a row. The last eight-game roll the Tigers enjoyed began with John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the White House and ended with Lyndon Baines Johnson in the oval office. Home games were then played at Crump Stadium, the Liberty Bowl having not yet been constructed. This is new territory for the U of M, though you'd hardly know it listening to coach Justin Fuente's initial postgame remarks.
"I'm glad we were able to send everybody home happy," said Fuente. "From a first-game perspective, some good and some bad. We've got to get a lot better in order to be the type of team we'd like to be. There's a bunch of things that happened out there that I'm happy about, and a bunch of things that I'm not pleased about. I don't feel we played as well with our twos as we should have. We weren't as efficient and crisp on both sides of the ball with our twos."
When the worst complaint a Memphis football coach offers is the lagging play of his reserves, yes, new territory has been reached.
The Tigers scored four touchdowns in the game's first 11 minutes, capitalizing twice on short fields after recovering Bear fumbles. Junior quarterback Paxton Lynch connected with Mose Frazier in the back of the end zone for a five-yard score just 1:53 into the game. Not quite three minutes later, Frazier caught a 44-yard touchdown pass, this time from fellow wideout Phil Mayhue on a reverse option. The game's most heart-warming touchdown came with 8:26 to play in the first quarter when sophomore Doroland Dorceus — having missed most of the 2014 season with a knee injury — rumbled in from two yards, the first of two scores he had in the game.
"I felt stronger and faster," said Dorceus. "I had confidence in my knee; I was ready for [the game]." When asked about maintaining focus when the score is lopsided early, Dorceus insisted his team stuck to business. "We came out after halftime [when the score was 42-0] acting like the score was 0-0. We just keep going. I'm excited about all the running backs, as long as we keep going 1 and 0." Jarvis Cooper led the Tiger ground game with 102 yards rushing and was one of three Memphis players (along with Frazier and Dorceus) to score two touchdowns.
Lynch was relieved of duty late in the first half, and finished with 78 yards passing, completing eight of 12 attempts. Redshirt-freshman Clay Holgorsen took over and completed seven of eight passes for 80 yards and a touchdown (to Jae'Lon Oglesby).
Twenty-six Tiger players were credited with at least an assisted tackle on defense, with no one picking up more than three. Fuente's ire was drawn early in the third quarter when Tiger lineman Ricky Hunter was flagged — and ejected from the game — for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Bears quarterback Breck Ruddick, a violation that helped Missouri State to its only touchdown of the game.
The Tigers' longest score came on a 63-yard punt return by sophomore Roderick Proctor, the program's first such touchdown since the 2004 season. "We've put in too much work," said Proctor, "not to have another great season."
The Tigers travel to Lawrence, Kansas, next week and will try and improve to 2-0 for the first time since, yes, the 2004 season. (The Jayhawks of the Big 12 lost to South Dakota State — an FCS program — earlier on Saturday.) "Leading up to the first game, you have a lot of time to prepare, scheme-wise," said Fuente. "Then all of a sudden you've got just a week [to prepare for Kansas]. How we handle that, across the board, will be interesting. There are some young guys out there, or at least some new guys. We have to find accountability and consistency. I know they were anxious to play. I just don't know how smart they played."
Calvin Godfrey's night began with a salute all his own, the Tigers' lone senior marching to the center of the court at FedExForum for a standing ovation from the largest crowd (15,784) to watch the U of M this season. Godfrey's night ended, alas, with the reserve forward hunched over, a solitary figure on the Tiger bench, his head buried in his jersey. Another dispiriting night in the lives of the 2014-15 Memphis Tigers.
When Nick King's three-point attempt — from well beyond the top of the arc — bounced awry at the end of overtime, the Tigers fell to 17-12 and suffered their sixth loss at home, the program's most since the winter of 2004-05. For the second time in three nights, Memphis battled a first-place team from the American Athletic Conference, though without star forward Austin Nichols for virtually the entire second half. When Tiger guard Avery Woodson buried a trey to give the U of M a 39-34 lead just 46 seconds into the second half, Nichols was on the floor under the Tulsa basket, writhing in pain after falling awkwardly to the floor with an opposing player, re-injuring his right ankle. (Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after the game that Nichols will likely be sidelined through the AAC tournament in mid-March.)
Nichols's supporting cast played valiantly without him. Junior forward Trahson Burrell converted a short field goal following a rebound with 23 seconds left in regulation play to tie the game at 66 and force overtime. Behind the shooting of Rashad Ray (18 points and four three-pointers), the Golden Hurricane erased a nine-point deficit over the game's final seven minutes before Burrell's put-back. Burrell and Shaq Goodwin, it should be noted, missed free throws inside the final three minutes that could have been the difference. Overall, the Tigers made but 13 of 24 foul shots.
Shaquille Harrison keyed Tulsa's overtime play with a three pointer and driving layup to give the visitors a 74-69 lead with 35 seconds left. Tiger point guard Kedren Johnson buried a three-pointer with 18 seconds showing on the clock and Tulsa was unable to get the ball in bounds, which set up the final play and King's heave to end the night.
"He was wide open at the top of the key," said Burrell after the loss, which drops Memphis to 9-7 in AAC play. "We're gonna live and die with a shot like that. Especially by Nick, because he's a good shooter. We wish it had gone in. But everybody's satisfied with that shot. These are the worst games to lose, by a last-second shot."
"My heart dropped when I saw Austin go down," added Burrell. "We love him. Everybody knows he's a big part of our team. We'll just pray for a speedy recovery."
Harrison led Tulsa with 23 points, while Goodwin paced the Tigers with 17 in 44 minutes on the floor. The Tigers outrebounded the Golden Hurricane, 41-29, and grabbed 18 offensive boards, but they were outscored in the paint, 38-30, and allowed 16 points off turnovers, including four in the span of 10 seconds late in the second half that shaved a 60-51 Memphis lead to just five points.
"I can't be mad at our effort," said Goodwin. "We had a look at the end to win it. You gotta live with those results. We could have shot a whole lot better from the free throw line. That's on us as players. Regardless, we had a chance to win. Just came up a little short."
On a night the 1984-85 Tigers were honored as part of the 30th anniversary of their Final Four run, the current Tigers found themselves on the wrong side of momentum once again when the game hung in the balance. (Just as the current Tigers missed their big guy in Nichols, Keith Lee was conspicuously absent among his former teammates when they were saluted at halftime.) "We played our butts off," said Pastner in assessing his team's performance. "I feel awful that we couldn't come away with a win. Especially the last home game. In the past, there have been times when it's snowballed on us. But we've found ways to keep fighting. It's obviously tough when Austin goes down. I know injuries are part of the game, so it's not an excuse. Austin is so unselfish, so positive. So it's a double-whammy. It kills you. His great attitude, plus his play."
Johnson scored 13 points and was one of three Tigers with eight rebounds (also Burrell and King). Burrell scored 12 off the bench.
"The law of averages hasn't worked out for us this year," said Pastner, "but it will. I love this group. We've gotta find a way to dig in and get a win on Thursday and a win on Sunday."
The coach acknowledged six home losses were never part of the plan, and emphasized that better days are ahead. "It's been one of those years," he said. "Playing with a new group of guys. We probably over-scheduled at the start of the year. We've gotten so much better, though. It's just one of those years."
NOTE: The March 5th issue of the Flyer will include a cover story on the 1984-85 Tigers. The paper hits the streets on Wednesday, March 4th.
Facing the 21st-ranked team in the country, the Tigers would have had their hands full with a complete arsenal Thursday night at FedExForum. By the third minute of the second half, though, two starting guards (Markel Crawford and Kedren Johnson) were out of the game for good and a third (Pookie Powell) was not even in the building, nursing an illness on campus.
Despite the emaciated roster, the Tigers found themselves tied (48-48) with SMU with less than ten minutes to play after Calvin Godfrey connected on a jump shot from near the top of the key. But Larry Brown's Mustangs then reeled off a 15-4 run, capped by junior guard Nic Moore's dagger three-pointer at the 2:49 mark to secure the visitors' 23rd win of the season.
Crawford collapsed to the ground after a collision with Mustang forward Yanick Moreira (setting a screen) with just over three minutes to play in the first half. Replays showed Crawford's head made full impact with Moreira's left shoulder. (No foul was called.) Crawford left the court after several minutes of attention for a bloodied mouth.
Then early in the second half — before either team had scored — Johnson was called for a personal foul (his fourth of the game) under the Mustang basket, then received a technical foul for a verbal exchange with an SMU player, which counted as a fifth, disqualifying violation. "[Sterling] Brown had something to say about the way I fouled his teammate," explained Johnson after the game. "He approached me and said something I didn't like, and I reacted the wrong way. The ref heard it and gave me a tech. It's my fault; I take responsibility for it. It's never happened to me before. It was shocking."
"I'm proud of our guys," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner. "We battled. We competed. Obviously, we were down some players. Kedren took that silly [technical] foul, and Markel being out with his jaw [injury]. Having those two guys down, it made it tough in the second half. Nic Moore hit a couple of big shots that broke our backs. We were mixing and matching, trying everything we could. SMU's the best team in the league."
The Tigers were down just two points at halftime (30-28), despite little offense from Austin Nichols (one for eight from the field) and the Mustangs taking 18 free throws to the Tigers' three.
Shaq Goodwin had one of his best performances of the season with 17 points, seven rebounds, and a pair of blocks, helping the U of M outscore the Mustangs in the paint, 32-26. But Nichols never found his touch, missing nine of 11 shots and Avery Woodson wasn't much better (three for 11). In addition to 16 points by Moore, the Mustangs got 11 each from Moreira and Ryan Manuel.
"We needed to come up with big plays in the final stretch," said Goodwin. "We needed to come up with the plays they came up with. That's why they won the game."
"Losing Markel was a huge factor," said Nichols. "He pretty much locked down [Ryan Boatright] of UConn. We were aiming for him to help us out with Nic Moore. That was a huge loss for us. We had to fight through it. We didn't give up; that's a positive. I'm proud of my teammates for not folding."
Nick King came off the bench and scored 14 points for the Tigers, his most since mid-January.
The Tigers fall to 17-11 with the loss, which ended a three-game winning streak. They return to play Saturday night at FedExForum when Tulsa — tied atop the American Athletic Conference with SMU — comes to town. At halftime of the home finale, the 1984-85 Tigers will be honored as part of the 30th anniversary of the team's run to the Final Four.
The Tigers brought some warmth — at least emotionally — to a city much in need Thursday night with a win over the defending national champions at FedExForum, the team's first home win over a club not named Jacksonville State in more than three weeks. Sophomore forward Austin Nichols, still nursing an injured right ankle, returned two games ahead of schedule to score 16 points, grab eight rebounds, and block seven shots in 38 minutes of action.
The Tigers allowed a 14-point second-half lead to shrink to two with 10 seconds to play. Freshman guard Markel Crawford made one of two free throws before Husky forward Daniel Hamilton missed a three-point attempt as the buzzer sounded. Crawford had a stellar game with 14 points, two rim-rattling dunks, and a defensive effort that held UConn star Ryan Boatright to seven points and only six field-goal attempts.
The win is the Tigers' third in two seasons over a defending national champ, Memphis having beaten Louisville twice in 2013-14. The program now sports an alltime record of 8-3 against title-holders, Thursday's win being just the second such victory over a team other than archrival Louisville. (Memphis beat Loyola-Illinois in 1964.)
"It was our funnest win, for sure," said Tiger guard Kedren Johnson, who played 38 minutes, scored a season-high 21 points, and delivered six assists. "It's a game of runs. We knew they were gonna make a push toward the end. You just gotta keep swinging till the final buzzer." Johnson described the defensive effort against Boatright as critical. "We knew how electric he was, the caliber player he is. It was all five of us keeping an eye on him, trying not to let him get loose."
Spurred by 13 points from Nichols over the game's first 16 minutes, the Tigers led throughout the first half. Crawford's first dunk put Memphis up 23-10 and a Johnson trey gave the U of M a 32-20 lead with 5:30 to play before halftime. The Tigers outscored UConn 11-5 over the first five minutes of the second half and seemed to be cruising before the Huskies countered with an 8-0 run sparked by a Hamilton three-pointer.
Nichols struggled offensively in the second half (one for ten from the field) and Shaq Goodwin was limited by foul trouble (he finished with eight points, five rebounds, five assists, and four blocks in 25 minutes). But Crawford got loose for another dunk inside the final minute and Johnson hit a pair of free throws with 17 seconds remaining to help the Tigers (16-10) move a game ahead of UConn (14-11) in the American Athletic Conference standings. The teams are battling for a coveted bye in the first round of next month's AAC tourney.
The Huskies clearly missed last year's AAC Player of the Year, Shabazz Napier. And the Tigers welcomed the return of a contender for this year's award. "To be honest, I knew I was gonna play three days ago," said Nichols. "I didn't want it to get out, UConn find out, and set their game plan up. But I felt confident about it. I told Coach [Josh Pastner] I was ready to go.
"I want to give all the credit to my teammates. I missed a lot of shots tonight, but they have the confidence in me to keep shooting. I try to be the aggressor when I'm out there. I'm proud of the guys tonight. We gotta protect home court. We went out there with confidence and got a win."
Sophomore guard Avery Woodson played a key supporting role for Memphis with 11 points that included three field goals from beyond the three-point arc. Pastner tightened his rotation, the Tiger bench contributing a total of 31 game minutes. Reserves took a total of three shots (one make, by Trahson Burrell).
Next for the Tigers is a road game Sunday in Orlando against a UCF team they beat by 20 points in mid-January at FedExForum. They're back at home on February 26th when SMU comes to town.
Temple reserve guard Josh Brown hit his first field goal of the game — a bank shot from about ten feet — with two seconds to play to give the Owls the win this afternoon at FedExForum. The loss all but crushes the Tigers' chances for a conference championship, and compounds the agony of losing their star player for what looks like two weeks, minimum.
Junior guard Kedren Johnson converted a driving layup with 7.6 seconds to play to give the Tigers a 60-59 lead, but without using a timeout, Temple got the ball to Brown with two lengthy passes for his game-winner. "I knew once it left his hands it was going in," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner. "We practice a lot of time-and-score situations, late-game stuff. I told the guys, after we score, we gotta get back. I think the excitement of the crowd going wild . . . . We did a good job of stopping Will Cummings. You gotta give him credit: he threw it to Josh Brown, and he hit a shot. A tough shot off the glass.
Making matters worse, sophomore forward Austin Nichols fell awkwardly with 7:10 left in the game, injuring his right ankle. He left the court with help, not placing any weight on his right leg. Pastner said the initial diagnosis is an ankle sprain, but Nichols will have an MRI and is expected to miss two weeks (four games). At the time of the Nichols injury, Memphis led 52-48. Even missing the last seven minutes, Nichols led all scorers with 17 points, blocked six shots, and pulled down eight rebounds. His 78 blocks this season are the eighth-most in Tiger history.
"Not having Austin makes a big difference for us," said Pastner. "Guys know he's our best player, the anchor of our team. That was a punch in the gut to our guys. They love Austin Nichols. I was proud of our guys to rally, not be discouraged. We put ourselves in a position to win the game. Temple has more experience; they're a very good team."
Pastner acknowledged 15 turnovers hurt his team's cause. And some woeful shooting. "We had some open threes we didn't stick," said Pastner. "If we hit two of those, we win." The Tigers missed 15 of 19 shots from long range. Johnson, Avery Woodson, and Trahson Burrell combined to hit but one of 11.
The Tigers raced to a big, early lead, a Johnson jumper putting them up 22-12 with just over 10 minutes played. The lead grew to 15 (32-17) before Temple closed the deficit to 10 (38-28) at halftime. The Owls didn't lead until Jaylen Bond hit a pair of free throws to give Temple a 56-54 lead with 4:40 to play. Temple's backcourt trio of Cummings, Jesse Morgan, and Quenton DeCosey combined to score 39 points, precisely the total they've averaged for the season. Morgan hit all 10 of his free throws to help the Owls improve to 17-7 (8-3 in the American Athletic Conference). Overall, Temple hit 20 of 32 free throws while Memphis made 12 of 18.
The loss took some shimmer off a stellar game by Memphis forward Shaq Goodwin. The junior pulled down 17 rebounds — a career high — in the first half alone, and finished the game with 23, the program's first 20-rebound effort since Joey Dorsey pulled down 22 in a 2008 game against Houston. Ronnie Robinson has held the Memphis single-game rebound record (28) for 44 years.
"It's a game of runs," said Goodwin. "They made the last big shot. We can't dwell on losses. We'll start getting prepared for East Carolina tomorrow." As for his night on the glass, Goodwin said, "I guess the ball found me today. It was a magnet. But none of that matters in a loss."
Johnson scored 11 points for the Tigers in a season-high 37 minutes of action. Burrell was the only Tiger to play more than 10 minutes off the bench but missed all three of his three-point attempts.
"It stings," said Johnson. "It's a terrible way to lose. "The guys in the locker room aren't going to give up. We'll keep fighting. Toward the end of the first half, we took our foot off the pedal a bit, and they took advantage of it."
Now 14-9 (6-4 in the AAC), the Tigers travel to play East Carolina next Tuesday. They won't return to FedExForum until UConn visits on February 19th.
The Tigers cruised to an easy win over the Gamecocks tonight in front of a sparse crowd at FedExForum, taking what amounts to a midseason reboot after an undressing at the hands of Gonzaga last Saturday. With 12 points, seven rebounds, and seven blocks, sophomore forward Austin Nichols finished in the neighborhood of the program's fourth triple-double. Shaq Goodwin led Memphis with 16 points (his most in more than two weeks) and Nick King scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench. Remarkably, it was just the second game this season the Tigers' preseason "big three" each scored in double figures (and the first time since November 28th).
The victory improves the Tiger record to 14-8 and gives them a modicum of momentum heading into the regular season's nine-game home stretch.
"We've come a long way in valuing the ball," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner of his team's 20 assists and only three turnovers. "That's gotta continue in our next nine games of regular-season conference basketball for us to have a shot, to keep winning."
The coach was thoroughly impressed with Nichols, particularly his performance on the defensive end of the floor. "He's improved immensely on the defensive end," he said. "He's a great defender. And last year he was an awful defender. Teams' number-one game plan was, 'How do we attack Austin?' He's become what D.J. Stephens was. I'm really proud of him." Nichols finished two shy of the Memphis record for blocks in a game and now has 71 for the season. (The single-season record is 107 by David Vaughn in 1993-94.)
"Coach broke it down for us," explained Nichols. "He said if the season ended today, we wouldn't make the tournament. So we have to make a huge push, these last nine games. Finish strong. He also emphasized the top five teams in the conference get a bye in the [American Athletic Conference] tournament. Our intensity [tonight] helped us out, then we were just having fun."
The fun included a 10-point lead at halftime (34-24) and a dominating performance in the paint, the Tigers outscoring the Gamecocks 46-8 near the basket. Trahson Burrell started and scored 13 points, the junior's most since December 17th. Kedren Johnson added 10, his third double-figure game of the season.
King discounted the two-game interruption to conference play, which ends Saturday when Temple comes to town. "We don't take these as conference games or not," he said. "Just the next game on the schedule. I'm just going out there calm and relaxed, doing what I can to help the team." The pride of East High has reached double figures in scoring in three straight games after sitting through the January 24th contest at Tulane.
Malcolm Drumright played all 40 minutes for Jacksonville State and led the visitors with 12 points.
Saturday's tip-off with Temple is scheduled for noon. The Owls beat USF tonight for their fourth straight win to improve to 16-7. Temple and Memphis each have three conference losses.
The Memphis Tigers withstood a second-half barrage of three-pointers by the overmatched East Carolina Pirates to win their second straight game and finish the first half of their American Athletic Conference schedule with a record of 6-3 (13-7 overall). Down 15 at halftime, ECU hit eight of its first 12 attempts from beyond the arc in the second half to close the deficit to merely five (61-56) with 4:30 to play. But the U of M scored nine of the game's final 11 points to secure its 12th double-digit win of the season.
"They were on fire in the second half," acknowledged Tiger forward Austin Nichols, who scored a game-high 21 points. "We just gotta finish games better. Markel [Crawford] and Avery [Woodson] were hand-in-their-face, up under the shooter. But they were just knocking them down. They're one of the best three-point shooting teams in our conference." Terry Whisnant led the way for East Carolina with five treys (on seven attempts) and 17 points. Five other Pirates connected from long range, with Caleb White adding 10 points. ECU's 13 three-pointers are the most Memphis has given up this season. Add six treys by the Tigers and the game featured more total long-range field goals of any Memphis game this season.
A furious end to the first half seemed to secure the game for the Tigers after 20 minutes. Trahson Burrell slammed home a lob from Avery Woodson, then dunked on a breakaway feed from Woodson before Nick King drained a three-pointer for a 39-24 lead. (King scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 19 minutes after not playing in the Tigers' win last Saturday at Tulane.) But four Pirate three pointers in the first six minutes of the second half closed the margin to seven points. A steady, efficient Tiger offense (19 assists, six turnovers) prevented what would have been an ugly loss in front of 13,335 fans at FedExForum.
"We were smart with the basketball, took care of the basketball," said junior guard Kedren Johnson (seven points, two assists). "They hit a lot of tough shots, with hands in their faces. I don't think our energy was as good as it's been recently, but taking care of the ball kept us in the game, and ultimately got us the win."
Johnson insists a conference championship remains a goal, though he knows his team will have to perform better than 6-3 over the second half of the AAC season. "It's just giving ourselves a chance. We need to keep ourselves within striking distance." The Tigers remain three games behind first-place Tulsa in the AAC loss column.
Burrell scored 11 points for the U of M and six different Tigers had at least two assists (Woodson led the way with five). Memphis dominated the Pirates in the paint, 34-12.
The Tigers next take the floor Saturday night in Spokane Washington, against the third-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs. The game is scheduled to tip off at 9 p.m. locally and will be televised on ESPN2.
NOTE: Junior forward Shaq Goodwin started the game for Memphis, (his first start since January 8th), but went to the bench after turning an ankle with just 19 seconds expired. He expects to play against Gonzaga.
A pair of key players returned to form Saturday afternoon at FedExForum and helped the Tigers to an easy win over the UCF Knights. Dominating the glass with a 53-24 rebounding advantage, Memphis cruised to its third straight win to improve to 11-6 on the season and 4-2 in American Athletic Conference play.
Junior forward Shaq Goodwin came off the bench and had his best game in over a month with 16 points and 10 rebounds (his second double-double of the season). Sophomore Nick King also came off the bench and scored 16 points in 22 minutes, his highest point total since he had 16 against Wichita State in the season opener.
"We had a good day of practice after the Cincinnati game," said Goodwin. "We knew [UCF] had great young guards, so we keyed on them and ended up winning." The Knights' high-scoring backcourt did not hit a three-point shot until late in the first half, held in check by the perimeter defense of Markel Crawford, Avery Woodson, and Pookie Powell. UCF missed 15 of its first 18 shots from the field, then hit 20 of 30 second-half shots, but never closed the scoring margin to less than 10 after halftime.
With Calvin Godfrey contributing a block, a jump shot, and two layups, the U of M raced off to a 13-3 lead over the game's first four minutes. Woodson drained a three-pointer with 1:05 left before halftime to essentially put the game out of reach at 39-23.
Trahson Burrell was the Tigers' third star off the bench with 11 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists in 28 minutes. It was the junior's second double-double as a Tiger.
King is especially pleased to be back in close-to-full form after nursing an ankle injury since late December. "I'm feeling more comfortable," he said. "Dealing with an ankle injury is a nag. I'm 100-percent now, but I've got to get comfortable doing what I was before the injury. It's doing little things that were hurting [during the injury], and they're not anymore. I just have to get comfortable. I'll stay positive and keep working."
Eleven Tigers played at least nine minutes, suggesting coach Josh Pastner's rotation may actually be expanding as the season gets later and the roster gets shorter (with the dismissal of Kuran Iverson). The Tiger bench scored more than half the team's points (56), contributing mightily to the U of M's largest point total of the season.
Daiquan Walker led UCF (off the bench) with 18 points and B.J. Taylor added 17. UCF has now lost 17 of 18 meetings with Memphis.
The victory for the Tigers sets up a showdown next Wednesday against league-leading Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane improved to 5-0 in AAC play with a win over USF today and has won seven straight games overall. Memphis then travels to New Orleans to face Tulane on January 24th.
Thursday night's tilt at FedExForum marked the precise tipping point to the Tigers' 2014-15 regular season. Fifteen games played prior to Cincinnati's arrival, and fifteen games now remaining. If there can be a breakthrough game in mid-January, a win over the program's most historic league rival is a good place to start.
Sophomore forward Austin Nichols led the way (again) with 17 points, eight rebounds, and three thorough blocks of Bearcat shots. But facing one of the most bruising teams in the American Athletic Conference, Memphis welcomed the continued rebirth of point guard Kedren Johnson (13 points and five assists in a season-high 34 minutes off the bench) and the lunch-pail work inside of senior Calvin Godfrey (eight points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes as a starter). Avery Woodson hit four of seven three-point attempts and scored 14 points in 38 minutes to help the Tigers improve to 10-6 (3-2 in the AAC).
"We did a good job defensively," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner. "For us to win games, we need to make some threes. And we made some shots. Avery really helped loosen things up for us. And I thought Calvin Godfrey's energy and toughness were infectious. His warrior-like mentality was infectious throughout the game. Cincinnati is not a good, but a great defensive team. We had to make shots to beat them."
The win is the Tigers' first over Cincinnati since December 29, 2008, a long dry spell in a series that originated in 1968. (The teams didn't play for four seasons until joining the AAC before the 2013-14 campaign.) The Bearcats are the highest-ranked team (RPI: 30) Memphis has beaten this season.
The lead changed hands seven times in the first half before the Tigers pulled away on a 9-2 run to close the period. Woodson drained a three-pointer for a 26-22 lead, then Godfrey followed with a dribble-drive after a missed free throw was deflected his way by Nichols.
Cincinnati closed the lead to one (33-32) over the first four minutes of the second half, but the Bearcats never regained the lead. Another Woodson trey extended the Tiger lead to six (45-39) with 9:01 to play, and Nichols hit back-to-back field goals to extend the lead to 12 (53-41) with just over five minutes left. Nichols has now scored at least ten points in ten consecutive games.
But it was Johnson's second straight double-digit outing that had Pastner most effusive. "Kedren's played well," said the coach. "He's kept a good attitude, he hasn't sulked or felt sorry for himself. He's done his job, and he stayed ready. When he got his number called, he took advantage of it. It's not easy for him. He didn't play a lot earlier in the season. You have to give him a lot of credit."
"I'm just trying to keep improving on what I've been doing," said Johnson. "I'm just getting a better feel for the guys. You're always going to have adversity; that's life. It's never going to be a perfect day. You just have to stay positive. The other option is being miserable all the time."
Johnson delivered a pair of exceptional entry passes that Nichols converted, and delivered a spinning, 360-degree layup himself to the delight of the crowd of 14,916.
Memphian Octavius Ellis (Cincinnati's top scorer) was held to two points, missing four of his five field-goal attempts. The Bearcats as a team shot 39.1 percent while the Tigers hit 46.9 percent of their shots. For the 15th time in 16 Tiger games this season, the scoring margin was in double figures.
"Every game is important," said Woodson when asked if this could be considered a statement win for his team. "No game is more important than the next one. We're just trying to get better. We're still climbing a ladder."
After a single season apart, Memphis and Tulane got reacquainted as conference rivals tonight at FedExForum. And with a 17-4 run to end the game, the Green Wave swept away a 22-game losing streak that dated back to February 2000, when Johnny Jones was coaching the U of M and home games were played at The Pyramid. The victory was Tulane's first over the Tigers in Memphis since December 9, 1992 (when Penny Hardaway was in uniform for a team then called Memphis State).
Tulane played virtually the entire game without its leading scorer, Louis Dabney, who went to the floor with a right-leg injury two minutes after tip-off. Sophomore guard Jonathan Stark — from Munford, Tennessee — seized the starring role with 24 points, including a dagger-trey with just over four minutes to play that reduced a five-point Tiger lead to 62-60. After a layup by teammate Tre Drye (and a Pookie Powell free throw for the Tigers), Stark buried another three-pointer, giving Tulane the lead for good at 65-63.
The loss ends a five-game winning streak for the Tigers, who are now 8-5 on the season (1-1 in American Athletic Conference play). They finished a lengthy nine-game homestand with a record of 6-3.
This was the Tigers' first game of the season to be decided by fewer than 10 points. A pair of Powell turnovers after Stark's two late-game treys compromised any chances the Tigers had of buzzer-beating heroics. The sophomore point guard had nine assists — the most by a Tiger all season — but also seven turnovers.
Austin Nichols was stellar in defeat for the Tigers, scoring a career-high 28 points (making 13 of 19 field-goal attempts, including the first three-pointer of his college career), pulling down nine rebounds, and blocking four shots in 35 minutes. Junior forward Shaq Goodwin emerged from a slump, scoring 14 points and grabbing nine rebounds in 32 minutes. Tiger coach Josh Pastner shortened his bench, in part because of an ankle injury to Nick King. Five players combined for merely 44 minutes and nine points in support of the Tiger starters.
"They were just tougher than us tonight," said Nichols. "We couldn't finish. We went on a streak and were feeling good. The effort was there. But then they'd go on a run. When that happens, it's tough to get on top. How we respond to losses will help define us as a team." Nichols added that there is something to be gained from his team's first tight game of the season. "It can only make us stronger, even losing on our home court. We just have to get ready for this next road trip."
The Tigers had a total of 16 turnovers that led to 24 Tulane points. Nichols and Goodwin had very little help from the other three U of M starters. Trahson Burrell made only two of 11 shots from the field, Powell was two for six, and Avery Woodson missed five of six shots three days after burying six three-pointers against Houston.
Drye finished with 14 points for the Green Wave and Jay Hook added 13, helping Tulane improve to 11-3 (2-0 in the AAC).
"It wasn't just the turnovers," said Goodwin. "They came up with the big plays in the end. That's why they got the win. All home wins matter, but this is another learning experience for us. I'm glad it's in the early part of the season. As long as we keep moving forward, we'll be fine. We'll take the loss and move on."
The Tigers travel to Texas for two games next week: SMU on Thursday, then a rematch with Houston next Sunday. They'll return to FedExForum on January 15th when Cincinnati comes to town.
The Tigers completed their busiest stretch of the season — five games in 11 days — with a thorough dismantling of the Fighting Leathernecks at FedExForum. Memphis scored the game's first nine points and had the game in hand by halftime with a 41-14 lead. (Western Illinois took 30 shots over the game's first 20 minutes and made four.)
Sparked by sophomore Nick King's first career double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds), the Tigers earned their fourth straight win and improved to 7-4. They'll open conference play when Houston comes to town for a New Year's Eve matinee.
"We needed game experience," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner when asked about the frequency of games this month. "I wish we could have done like the NBA does and have eight preseason games. We had some tough early games, where we were trying to figure things out. I'm trying to figure the guys out, and they were trying to figure each other out. We dropped a couple of games due to that. It's such a new team, with such inexperience. We have a better feel of who our team is, our identity. And what we need to continue to work on."
Junior forward Shaq Goodwin did not play, having been suspended a game for what Pastner called a violation of team rules. (Pastner described the violation as "extremely minor.") It was the first game Goodwin has not entered in his college career. Senior Calvin Godfrey came off the bench to absorb some of Goodwin's playing time and contributed 12 points and nine rebounds in 16 minutes.
"That's what [Godfrey] does," said King. "In practice, he's always a leader on the plus-minus chart. We're battling for rebounds, talking, because we have a connection. Hats off to Calvin because he had a great game. He stepped up when his name was called."
The Tigers bottled up the Leathernecks' top scorer, holding Garret Covington (17.8 ppg) to a single field goal on 11 attempts and four points. Western Illinois made only four of 19 three-point attempts, the seventh time in seven Tiger wins the U of M has held its opponent under 30 percent from long range.
Trahson Burrell was one of five Tigers with at least 10 points (10), his fifth straight game in double figures, and also pulled down nine rebounds. Austin Nichols scored 12 and Pookie Powell had 10. The Tigers had more assists (17) than turnovers (12) for just the third time this season.
The U of M has now played 11 games without a scoring margin less than 10 points, the first such stretch to open a season since 1985-86. (That Tiger team won all 11 games.) Burrell feels his team will be ready when tighter games unfold. "We haven't played an official road game yet," he said. "We've played on some neutral sites. But that will be our first real test, on the road."
"This is the best stretch we've played," said Pastner. "I think we're getting better. I'm excited to see where we are, the way we've progressed. Now, as we get into conference play, we've got to keep getting better."
The Memphis Tigers have their point guard. In a span of three games (and six days), sophomore Pookie Powell has managed to flip the script for a basketball team that two weeks ago found itself desperately in need of a backcourt stabilizer. This afternoon at FedExForum, Powell scored 14 points, dished out seven assists, grabbed six rebounds, two steals and even blocked a pair of Oral Roberts shots — one into the third row — to lead the Tigers to their third straight victory. After the Tigers played their first seven games without a player picking up as many as five assists, Powell has done so in three straight games, totaling 20 (against 10 turnovers).
"I cannot speak enough of my internal feelings toward Pookie," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after the game. "His 50-50 plays, his effort, his toughness, his ability to stick his nose in and rebound. When Pookie got here, he would never stick his nose in or make 50-50 plays. His progression . . . I'm so darn proud of the young man. It's not about the offense. It's about him battling. Making a [defensive] play on the two-on-one fast break. He's got to keep it going."
"I'm just going out there, ready to play," said Powell. "I'm in a different mode when I'm out there. Coach emphasizes playing harder, making plays on the defensive end."
Sophomore guard Avery Woodson has had the closest view of Powell's transformation, starting alongside him in the Tiger backcourt. "He's been a talented player, and a point guard all his life," said Woodson. "I don't know why anyone ever doubted him. It just took him some time to get comfortable."
Sophomore forward Austin Nichols shared Powell's spotlight against the Golden Eagles, blocking eight shots — one shy of the Memphis record — and scoring 15 points with nine rebounds. His outing was in sharp contrast to that of junior Shaq Goodwin, who was a nonfactor after picking up two first-half fouls. "It's on Shaq to get the job done," said Pastner, after the preseason all-conference pick played but nine minutes and didn't score. "He's a huge piece. He's hit a bit of a wall, and he has to break through it."
The Tigers led by ten points (19-9) before the ten-minute mark of the first half, but allowed the Golden Eagles to make a 12-2 run over a four-minute stretch. Powell took an inbounds pass and drove the length of the floor for a layup to beat the halftime buzzer and give the U of M a 35-28 lead at the break.
Back-to-back layups by Korey Billbury drew ORU within five points (56-51) with 8:31 to play, but the Tigers responded and stretched the lead back to 13 points after a strip and breakaway dunk by Trahson Burrell with just over four minutes to play. Billbury scored a game-high 21 points for the Golden Eagles while Burrell had 12 to go along with seven rebounds for Memphis.
The Tigers' supporting cast played a big role, with 27 points coming off the bench. Nick King scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds while Chris Hawkins added six and seven, respectively, in just 18 minutes.
The Tigers held ORU to 34 percent shooting from the field and just 20 percent (3 for 15) from three-point territory. The U of M made 21 of 25 from the free-throw line.
Now 6-4, the Tigers will aim to extend their winning streak to four Tuesday night when Western Illinois visits FedExForum. It will be the last game before American Athletic Conference play begins (Houston here, December 31st).
The biggest cheer tonight at FedExForum was for the University of Memphis football team. (A sentence I never thought I'd write.) The twenty minutes of basketball before the 2014 American Athletic Conference (football) champions were introduced were dreadful. And the 20 minutes after football coach Justin Fuente invited 14,501 fans to Florida for the Miami Beach Bowl (December 22nd) were no improvement. The loss drops the Tigers to 3-4 and will leave them without a signature win before conference play opens on New Year's Eve.
This was not the top-10 Oklahoma State team led by Marcus Smart (now a Boston Celtic) that Memphis beat to win the Old Spice Classic a year ago. Alas, this is not the 2013-14 Tigers either. And it showed in numerous ways.
• For the sixth time in seven games, Memphis committed more turnovers (23) than its assist total (11).
• The Tigers missed 10 of their first 12 shots and went an entire 10-minute stretch of the second half without scoring a field goal.
• Despite 19 offensive rebounds, the Tigers managed only 10 second-chance points.
• Two of the team's three veteran leaders played dreadfully. Shaq Goodwin fell into early foul trouble and took only two shots (making one) in 19 minutes on the floor. Nick King came off the bench and missed nine of ten field-goal attempts, including some in the shadow of the rim.
• The team's lone outside shooter, Avery Woodson, missed all four of his three-point attempts and failed to score in 31 minutes.
The game had insult. Senior forward Calvin Godfrey was benched permanently after shouting at Tiger coach Josh Pastner when removed quickly in the first half.
The game had injury. Freshman guard Markel Crawford had to be helped to the locker room after twisting his left knee in the first half. (It was Crawford's right knee that he hurt before his senior season at Melrose High School. Pastner said Crawford will be out "until after Christmas.")
Le'Bryan Nash led the Cowboys with 20 points and Anthony Hickey and Phil Forte each scored 19 to help Oklahoma State improve to 8-1. The win erases some of the sting from a 26-point beat-down at South Carolina a week ago.
As for the Tigers, if only the early-season pain amounted to merely a sting. "We've got to find a way to win games," said Pastner. "And find it in a hurry. We have to play better." The coach acknowledged the obvious: turnovers and scoring droughts are compromising his team's chance to compete, even with mediocre opposition.
"It's tough when your point guards are having the number of turnovers we're having. We haven't found the point guard yet." After playing well against Bradley in the Tigers' last outing, Kedren Johnson committed four turnovers in just 13 minutes of play tonight. He didn't score a point or contribute an assist.
And the missed layups had Pastner mystified. "We've done tough-man drills," he said. "We've hit them with bags. Unexplainable. You've got to make them. Missing those short shots are absolute back-breakers."
Sophomore forward Austin Nichols scored 11 points (5 of 11 from the field) and pulled down 13 rebounds to go with three blocked shots. He insists his team will come together, and plans on leading with encouragement, not just game-to-game, but possession-to-possession. "Our energy was there, but we just didn't hit shots," he said. "And every time we'd force a turnover, we'd go down and turn the ball over ourselves. We'll get back to practice tomorrow, and get better. I tell my teammates when I'm out there to never quit. The game's never over until it's over. Never give up. Every play of every game on the schedule."
Junior forward Trahson Burrell played a season-high 30 minutes off the bench and tied Kuran Iverson for the team scoring lead with 13 points. (Iverson also came off the bench but played just 13 minutes.) Burrell grabbed nine rebounds . . . but turned the ball over four times. "We settled for shots a little too much," he noted. "We need to get to the free-throw line more. [The Tigers made 12 of 21 from the stripe.] I felt like we played good on defense, but our offense really wasn't there tonight. It's frustrating when you don't score for six or seven minutes."
The Tigers return to play Monday night when they host North Carolina Central. They'll then play three more games before Christmas, all at FedExForum. They might consider inviting the football team back.
Three consecutive Tiger dunks late in the first half — by Nick King, Markel Crawford, and Pookie Powell — will lead highlight shows of Saturday night's win over Bradley at FedExForum. But a pair of numbers — 15 and 8 — may be a better indicator of improvement for a team still searching for its strengths. Saturday's game was the first of the season in which the Tigers accumulated more assists (15) than turnovers (8). Better yet, an energetic Tiger defense forced 20 turnovers by the Braves, the most a Memphis opponent has committed this season. Led by 15 points and 12 rebounds from junior Shaq Goodwin, the Tigers evened their record at 3-3, with the next seven games on the schedule all to be played at Third and Beale.
"We established our presence early," said Goodwin after the win. "We focused on our game plan for this team: being tough and being together. We executed."
Tiger coach Josh Pastner opened the game with a three-guard lineup, replacing Nick King with Kedren Johnson for the tip-off. The rotation also received a boost with the debut of sophomore forward Kuran Iverson, who missed the Tigers' first five games, primarily due to concussion symptoms. Johnson played a season-high 26 minutes and scored as many points tonight (8) as he had in the first five games combined (7). As for Iverson, he played "energy guy," his impact larger than his numbers on the stat sheet (two points and a rebound in 11 minutes).
"I told Coach before the game that I'll bring energy," said Iverson. "I just wanted to get back in the rotation and help my teammates by making plays. Whatever position he puts me at, I'll play."
"Kuran came in with great energy from the start," said Johnson. "He had great energy in warm-ups. He'll keep working, getting his game together, and helping us out."
As for his much-talked about conditioning, Johnson said he's making strides. "It's just getting my rhythm back with the speed of the game," he said. "Being away for a year, it's been tough. Learning what these [teammates] like, and what bothers them. Gotta be tough with the ball, make sure passes."
Coming off the bench for the first time this season, King scored nine points in ten first-half minutes, including a windmill slam that is the season's top highlight to date. "I knew I was gonna dunk it as soon as I recognized Kuran would make the pass before falling out of bounds," he said. King wore a headband tonight, not so much for a fashion statement, but to protect a small scratch near his right eye (that stings when King sweats).
Sophomore guard Avery Woodson drained three three-pointers in the second half and finished the game with 11 points in 34 minutes. Ten Tigers contributed either one or two assists each, totaling 15 on the team's 21 made field goals. The Tigers shot 43 percent from the field and hit 25 of 40 free throws (63 percent).
Next up on the December home stand will be Oklahoma State on December 13th. The Tigers split a pair of games with the Cowboys early last season.
In a game that completed a half-century of Memphis football at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers made plenty of history in beating the Connecticut Huskies today. The final score of 41-10 is almost the direct inverse of last year’s meeting (a 45-10 UConn win) and completes a precise reversal of the Tigers’ 3-9 record last season. In winning their ninth game of the season — a total reached by only five other teams in U of M history — the Tigers clinched at least a share of the 2014 American Athletic Conference championship. It’s the program’s first league title since winning the Missouri Valley Conference in 1971.
“I want to thank everyone who came out to tonight and supported this special, special group of kids,” said Tiger coach Justin Fuente of the 35,102 fans in attendance. “I don’t think I can say enough good things about them. The way they worked . . . . I don’t know if they’re the most talented team around, but they certainly played together. This was a fantastic all-around effort.”
The 2014 Tigers are just the second team in Memphis history to score 400 points in a season. With a total of 416, they could break the record of 430 (set in 2004) in their bowl game (still to be determined). The team’s current six-game winning streak is the program’s longest since 1969, and the nine wins this season match the total for the four-year seniors — honored before kickoff today — who played from 2011 to 2013.
The Memphis offense had difficulty gaining early traction against UConn (2-9), settling for a pair of Jake Elliott field goals in the first quarter. But late in the second quarter, quarterback Paxton Lynch found senior wideout Keiwone Malone on a six-yard fade pattern to complete an 80-yard touchdown drive and give the Tigers a 13-0 lead, all the points they’d need.
Lynch threw three more touchdown passes on three consecutive third-quarter possessions to fully prep Tiger fans for a championship celebration unlike any seen in these parts. He found Malone again (for nine yards), then Tevin Jones (for 12), and Phil Mayhue (for 21). For the game, Lynch completed 22 of 41 passes for 194 yards and did not throw an interception for the sixth straight contest. He also rushed for 56 yards in helping the Tigers score on all six entries into the red zone.
“After the Houston game [the Tigers’ last defeat], I made a bet with myself to not turn the ball over and hurt my team,” said a jubilant Lynch after the game. He finished the regular season with 18 touchdown passes and six interceptions (half of them in that Houston game).
Tailback Brandon Hayes had the unique experience of a second Senior Day, having been granted a sixth year of eligibility last spring (he missed the 2010 season due to a knee injury). Hayes gained but 65 yards today, but will lead Memphis in rushing yardage a third straight season. “After we beat Cincinnati, I knew we had the chance to be contenders, to win the conference,” said Hayes. “But Coach [Fuente] stayed on us, told us not to look past the next opponent. Just go 1-0. Everybody bought into it.”
Hayes and the 20 other Tiger seniors will be the faces of one of college football’s most remarkable recent turnarounds. “When I saw the confetti flying, I got choked up a bit,” he said. “I was just grateful to come back and showcase what I had. This is all bonus. It’s a great feeling. Going out with a bang like we did, the seniors deserve it. It means so much. We trusted in the coaches.”
Cornerback Bobby McCain is another senior grateful to be making plans for a bowl game and fully aware of the difference his class has made in Tiger football history. “We were just trying to get to a bowl game, do something special,” he said. “Coach Fuente told us during offseason workouts that we had the chance to do something special. He meant it. When we lost to UCLA, you could tell the way we came together. And then beating Middle Tennessee, a team we hadn’t beaten since I’ve been here. The seniors are great leaders. They come in ready to work. I’m gonna miss these guys. But I’ve got one more game to play.”
Fuente recognized the contributions — and not just this year’s — of the 2014 senior class. “They have set a great example for our young kids,” he said. “They’ve been selfless. Some of them don’t start, some play a lot on special teams. But they don’t do anything but try and help the team, every day. Think about what these kids have been through, and to achieve something a lot of people didn’t believe they could achieve. It speaks volumes about their character and work ethic. It will take them a long way in life. I think you’ll see them successful in whatever endeavor they choose.”
The Tigers must wait to see if their conference championship is theirs alone. For such a scenario, East Carolina must beat UCF next Thursday and Houston must beat Cincinnati next Saturday. Meanwhile, the Tigers will relish the finest season in 50 years of football at the Liberty Bowl, and await the December 7th announcement of where they’ll be traveling for postseason football. Birmingham? Miami? Atlanta? Doesn’t matter so much, as long as that confetti is flying.