The Tigers won their 12th straight home opener tonight, easily handling Prairie View A&M in front of a relatively sparse FedExForum crowd. (If there were 14,412 fans in attendance, as announced, many of them spent the entire game at concession stands.) The Panthers scored the first field goal of the game before falling behind 15-2. With less than 12 minutes played, Memphis had a 26-11 lead and room to experiment with a rotation still to be determined in the young season.
With a 22-6 edge on the boards, the Tigers led 38-23 at halftime, shooting proficiently from the field (60 percent) and the free-throw line (85 percent). By game's end, those percentages had dropped to 50 and 75, respectively, but the U of M (1-1) had secured its first win of the season and sent the Panthers to their fifth loss in five games.
Shaq Goodwin led the Tigers with 16 points in 23 minutes, hitting all six of his shots from the field. Junior forward Trahson Burrell contributed 9 points and 9 rebounds. They were two of nine Tigers to play between 16 and 28 minutes as coach Josh Pastner explores the strengths (and discovers the frailties) of a team still getting to know one another.
Freshman Markel Crawford and sophomore Avery Woodson started in the backcourt and each drained a pair of three-pointers, Crawford finishing with 9 points in 20 minutes and Woodson with 8 in 18. After a horrid 4-assist, 24-turnover showing in their opener last week against Wichita State, the Tigers dished out 15 assists tonight against 16 turnovers.
There was a common word mentioned by players after the game, an ingredient that can only be found through winning basketball games. "It feels good to finally get a win with this new team," said Goodwin. "To see [Crawford and Woodson] have the confidence to keep shooting was amazing. That means a lot to this team. Hopefully it will bring up their confidence, they'll keep shooting, and we'll be fine."
Added Crawford, "Confidence has probably been the biggest issue, only because we've been thinking too much. We have to play through the post, and seeing our big men do the job boosts our confidence." Sophomore forward Austin Nichols had 7 points and 3 blocks in 16 minutes.
"It's nerves," said Woodson, when asked about the confidence factor. "We're trying to form a team. We have individual talent, but we need to get more games under our belt and get a good feel for each other. We all have to be productive for us to be a great team. For some of us, it's our first time playing at this level. It's a matter of being comfortable out there."
With a confidence-boosting first win under their belt, the Tigers will head to Las Vegas, where they'll face Baylor Thanksgiving night (tip-off at 11 p.m.) in the first of two games in 24 hours.
Tiger coach Justin Fuente calls it a weekly "quest to go 1-0." With their win today over the South Florida Bulls at the Liberty Bowl (in front of 34,635 fans), Fuente's Tigers have fulfilled that quest five weeks in a row, earning the Memphis program eight wins for the first time since DeAngelo Williams's junior campaign of 2004. It's the program's first five-game winning streak since Williams was a sophomore.
After spotting the Bulls an early 3-0 lead, the Tigers scored on consecutive first-quarter possessions, quarterback Paxton Lynch running the ball into the end zone to culminate each drive. (Lynch's 10 rushing touchdowns this season ties a Memphis record for quarterbacks set in 1961 by James Earl Wright.) In addition to the two touchdowns on the ground, Lynch passed for a pair, a 42-yarder to Mose Frazier in the second quarter and an 11-yard toss to senior tailback Brandon Hayes in the third. This was the sixth game of the season Lynch has both run and passed for touchdowns. Hayes rushed for 189 yards on 21 carries, the second-highest total of his career.
Down 28-13 midway through the third quarter, USF drove the ball inside the Tigers' 20-yard line, only to turn the ball over on a fumble forced by sophomore linebacker Jackson Dillon. It was the last time the Bulls threatened before scoring in garbage time.
The victory improves the Tigers' record to 8-3 and secures a tie atop the American Athletic Conference with a league record of 6-1. Memphis will clinch at least a tie for the AAC championship with a win next Saturday against Connecticut.
"There's no superstar on either side of the ball," said Fuente after the game when asked how the 2014 Tigers will be defined. "This group is selfless, and they're very good listeners. That's an important trait."
Among the faces of the team will be senior defensive end Martin Ifedi. With the game in hand, Ifedi broke through the USF line in the fourth quarter to sack USF quarterback Mike White. The tackle gives Ifedi 22.5 sacks for his career and places him alone atop that chart in the Memphis record book. "It's a great feeling," said Ifedi. "[My teammates] knew how much this meant to me. We've joked around since the offseason. I was kind of afraid we'd get a penalty for excessive celebration."
The sack was but one of eight tackles-for-loss accumulated by the Tiger defense, which still allowed 396 yards for the game. (The Tigers gained 470 on 19 fewer plays.) Senior linebacker Tank Jakes contributed eight solo tackles.
Lynch completed 18 of 23 passes for 232 yards and didn't throw an interception for the fifth straight game. "The past two weeks, Mose has managed to slip by the defense and I've been able to find him," said Lynch. "We're gonna enjoy this tonight, but tomorrow we'll get right back to work. UConn got us pretty good last year.
With one home game left in his college career, Ifedi smiled when asked to reflect on the growth he's seen since the Tigers went 2-10 his freshman season (2011). "The young guys know what it takes now. We have great coaches who came in and showed us the vision. We implemented the plan in the offseason, and were consistent [with our work] in the offseason. [Coach Fuente] doesn't tolerate certain things. We understand what he wants. We play hard on the field for each other."
The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday to host the Huskies on Senior Day. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m.
I'll resist snark. It's too easy tonight. The Tigers lost their first exhibition game in 18 years (not since Larry Finch's last as head coach at his alma mater). For Trey Casey, Ryan Fleming and the rest of the CBU Buccaneers, it's a game they'll recall for grandchildren 30 and 40 years from now. The only silver lining for the U of M: No matter what happens the rest of the 2014-15 season, the Tigers' most embarrassing loss is behind them.
Wondering if Tiger sophomore Kuran Iverson might have made a difference in the overtime loss? Memphis coach Josh Pastner described the forward's not playing as "coach's decision." Perhaps a lesson was taught before the games count in the standings. Plenty of other lessons were, at the least, introduced tonight. Here are four big-picture thoughts as the season-opener against (gulp) Wichita State next Tuesday approaches.
• The Tiger backcourt is a time-share, and I'm not convinced Pastner knows any more than we do about the production he'll receive this season. Pookie Powell played so poorly in the first half, he was given but two minutes of playing time in the second. Pastner described Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson as "not good, whatsoever" after the game. Johnson had six turnovers, including a critical one with the game tied and 14 seconds left in regulation. Avery Woodson played 30 minutes, part of a seven-man rotation in the second half. But he missed eight of 11 shots (six of eight from three-point range). There were a lot of slings and arrows aimed at the four senior guards that shaped last season's squad. With this year's team, there may be a new target for criticism, one game to the next.
• Markel Crawford is the best athlete on the team. And I think he'll lead the guards in minutes played this season. He's active defensively, appears unafraid with the ball in his hands (both inside and on the perimeter), and seemed to play with a confidence few other Tigers showed tonight. (Remember, he was with the team last season as a redshirt.) He led the team with five assists in 29 minutes. Of course, he missed four of five three-point attempts, which means he blended well tonight. (Sorry . . . snark.)
• This team is in dreadful need of a shooter. And Pastner knows it. ("There's a question mark with our shooting," he said after the game.) They will not win games from the perimeter, meaning they have to feed the ball to forwards Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols, which furthermore means they have to push the ball up the floor . . . prevent defenses from collapsing around the Tiger twin towers. "In my six years as coach here," said Pastner, "this was the slowest pace we've ever played." Here's where we have to watch how Pastner coaches, how he teaches. Shooting can't be taught once a player reaches college. (Fine-tuned, yes. But shooting can't be learned when you're 18 or 20 years old.) But Pastner can teach his guards how to play faster, to pressure defenses with ball movement, and feed the big men before defenders have established position.
• Nichols is supremely talented, but I think Goodwin will be the pulse of this team. He has the chance to be a version of Hall of Fame-bound Kevin Garnett, the rare forward who can will his teammates to wins through emotional impact. Goodwin has to play with fire; this much is a given. There's not enough talent around him for anything less. But he must also show the fire. There was a stretch tonight — midway through the second half — when Goodwin hit a pair of baskets (one an alley-oop dunk on a feed from Nichols) and captured the FedExForum crowd. The Tigers went up 50-43 with 8:35 to play and seemed to have the game (finally) in hand. Then he (and his teammates) faded.
An entire season remains to be played. You'd like to say the Tigers can start from scratch in South Dakota next week. It just doesn't feel that way.
With former Poison frontman Bret Michaels serving as a Friday-night opening act, the Memphis Tigers had a spotlight unlike many in the recent history of the football program. It took a while for their high-scoring offense to warm up, but the Halloween tilt with Tulsa proved, indeed, nothing but a good time.
After falling behind 14-3, the Tigers scored 17 points over the last 8:10 of the first half, capped by a 51-yard touchdown run by Brandon Hayes, the longest of the senior's career and the first of three scoring jaunts he had for the night. Defensive end Martin Ifedi tied the U of M career record for sacks with the 21st of his career and kicker Jake Elliott delivered four field goals — two of them longer than 50 yards — as the Tigers improved to 5-3, just one win shy of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2008.
"[Tulsa] is a tough squad, and they're playing their tails off," said a gracious Tiger coach Justin Fuente after the game. (Fuente played high school football for current Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship.) "They're playing with a bunch of young kids, and a bunch of guys who are beat up. They're going to be a dangerous team in the coming years. I couldn't be happier to get out of this game with a win. Our kids didn't panic when things weren't going well. We were prepared for a dogfight tonight."
This being Halloween — the Tigers' first game on the holiday in 16 years — Charlie Brown would have described the third quarter as less a dogfight and more of "a rock." Tulsa punted six times and Memphis four in 15 minutes of play that took almost an hour off the lives of participants and the 26,846 fans who braved the chill. Two Elliott field goals — one from 47 yards, the other from 51 — ended the only punt-free drives of the period.
Hayes put the game out of reach with a 30-yard scamper with 10:06 left in the game. The 14-yard touchdown he scored with 2:50 to play gave Hayes a career-high 197 yards for the game, and gave Memphis precisely the number of points the Tulsa defense has allowed, on average, in eight games this season. (The Golden Hurricane fell to 1-7.) "This team is different from all the teams I've played for," said Hayes. "We have something special going on, in all phases of the game. It's a great feeling, going into the next four games with a winning record."
Hayes smiled when asked about his long runs and record night. "I wasn't thinking about the yards, just getting into the end zone," he said. "I felt like I needed to do something [before halftime]," he said. "I saw a little crease, and made a play. To be honest, I thought someone was backside, about to tackle me the whole time. I just focused on not fumbling the ball."
Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch completed 18 of 31 passes for 183 yards and scored the Tigers' first touchdown of the game, his seventh rushing TD of the season. The Tiger offense gained 426 yards (to 411 for Tulsa), but struggled on third down (6 for 17).
Senior cornerback Bobby McCain led the Memphis defense with seven solo tackles, with lineman Terry Redden adding six. The Tigers held Tulsa to 62 yards on the ground.
The Tigers play again next Friday night (at Temple), the first of four games to build their bowl resume. You can hear Bret Michaels, can't you? The Memphis Tigers have something to believe in.
It's one thing to go by the name Tank and quite another to play like one. Tiger senior linebacker Tank Jakes — at 5'11" and 227 pounds, there's some irony to the name — played the kind of game that can be packaged and delivered to NFL scouts as his own personal highlight reel. Jakes had six solo tackles, two sacks (one for a safety), a forced fumble, and an interception to all but seal the Tigers' second victory of the season. Playing in front of 46,378 fans (the Tigers' largest home crowd since 2006) Memphis displayed the same balanced offensive attack that hammered Austin Peay and almost upset UCLA.
"It was a great atmosphere," said Jakes. "My adrenaline was pumping. I play with an edge. I'm the smallest guy on the field at all times; people want to intimidate you. So I play with an edge. We had an extra week to prepare [for today's game], so we came out and did what we had to do."
Memphis ran 86 plays and piled up 480 yards in easily handling the Blue Raiders, a team that had won five of six meetings since the programs resumed playing in 2007. A Middle Tennessee offense that entered the game averaging 501 yards per contest was force to punt on four of its first six possessions, another of those possessions ending when Jakes sacked Blue Raider quarterback Austin Grammer in the end zone to give the Tigers a 9-0 lead in the first quarter.
"We had a great crowd, an active crowd," said Tiger coach Justin Fuente. "We had a crowd that wanted to help us win the football game. They helped us win. I'm awfully appreciative of that. We challenged [the team] to play with more discipline, and we did that. It certainly wasn't a perfect performance. But we were able to run the ball, make some plays with the passing game, and we played pretty darn good defense."
Fans weren't yet entirely through the gates when tight end Alan Cross caught a seven-yard pass from Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch to give Memphis a 7-0 lead 3:19 into the game. Jake Elliott's first field goal of the season and a 32-yard touchdown run by Doroland Dorceus extended the lead to 19-7 by halftime and gave the Tigers all the points they'd need.
Senior cornerback Bobby McCain picked up a Grammer fumble and sprinted 59 yards for a touchdown (the fourth of McCain's career) with 11:13 left to play in the game. The fumble was caused by Jakes, who then picked off a Grammer pass on the Blue Raiders' next possession.
Dorceus, Brandon Hayes, and Sam Craft combined to rush for 242 yards on 42 carries. Keiwone Malone caught six passes for 76 yards, and Cross added a 50-yard catch-and-run touchdown early in the fourth quarter to help pad Lynch's numbers for the game (21 of 35 for 219 yards and two touchdowns). The Tigers did not allow a sack, while the Memphis defense took Grammer down five times.
"Each week is a new challenge," said Fuente. "I think we accounted for ourselves well tonight. But it's a long season, and we have to keep getting better."
On the subject of the game's standout performance: "[Tank Jakes] is a good football player. He understands the game. He's very heady. He can get into cracks and crevices to make plays."
Fuente acknowledged his defense virtually shutting down Middle Tennessee's running game (88 yards on 34 carries), forcing a one-dimensional attack that the faster, gap-closing Tigers were able to nullify. "We were able to get some pressure when bringing just three guys," he said. "We can mix up some looks on teams if there's one part of the game you don't have to worry about as much."
The crowd was the eighth-largest the Tigers have hosted when playing a team not from the mighty SEC. "Our administration has done a fantastic job of making things accessible," said Fuente, "and attracting people. The crowd played a big role on third down. We're taking a step toward making this a tough place to play."
Memphis is assured of entering October with a .500 record for the first time since 2004. Now 2-1, the Tigers travel to Oxford next Saturday to take on 10th-ranked Ole Miss. The two programs haven't met since 2009, but Ole Miss has won the last five meetings and nine of the last eleven.
This was a game a long-suffering Memphis Tiger fan base had coming. After nine straight season-opening losses — and just three years after starting a season with a 59-14 loss — the Tigers took it all out on an undermanned Austin Peay program aiming to recover from a winless 2013 season. Playing under a steady drizzle, Memphis scored touchdowns on six of its first seven possessions to secure the game before halftime, five different Tigers reaching the end zone before the season was 30 minutes old.
The most disoriented man among the 27,361 fans at the Liberty Bowl had to be 2013 Ray Guy Award-winner Tom Hornsey, who didn't see the home team punt until the final play of the first half. The win was thorough by every measure, Memphis accumulating 545 yards of offense on 82 plays (compared with 146 on 50 for the Governors).
"We have a lot of things we can do better," warned a stolid Justin Fuente after the game. Said the Tiger coach, "There are a lot of things for us to coach off of. We were going to grade how we played, and at times we played well. I'm happy with the way the kids prepared."
The only negatives to report from the Tiger side of things were four fumbles (three of them recovered by Memphis players) and a leg injury that sent senior defensive end Martin Ifedi to the locker room with just under nine minutes to play in the third quarter (the Tigers led 49-0 at the time). The status of Ifedi's injury won't be known until Sunday at the earliest.
Memphis had not shut out an opponent since 2000 and hadn't scored 63 points since 1969. (The point total is fourth highest in the program's history, seven shy of the record: 70 against Tampa in 1949.) Sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch completed 20 of 27 passes for 242 yards, passing for two touchdowns and running for two more. (Lynch was relieved by junior Jason Stewart midway through the third quarter. Senior tailback Brandon Hayes ran for 59 yards on 11 carries and scored on a three-yard dash in the first quarter. It was freshman Jarvis Cooper, though, who stole the spotlight with his running in the second half. The West Memphis product galloped 101 yards on eight carries and scored the Tigers' final touchdown with 5:53 left in the game.
Fuente mentioned a "delicate balance" his team aimed to maintain, executing an offensive game plan, allowing younger players to get playing time they might not get in a closer contest, but then not coming across as unprofessional to an opponent Fuente and his staff respect. (The Tiger staff knows a thing or two about rebuilding a program.) "You gotta take it as a whole, and see if the kids are taking what you're emphasizing," said Fuente.
No fewer than 26 Tiger defensive players were credited with at least an assisted tackle, suggesting the Memphis defense is as deep as it's been in years. One defensive starter not credited with a tackle was Bobby McCain, but the senior cornerback intercepted his first pass of the season and returned it 29 yards in the first quarter. "It was great putting a zero up there," he said after the game. "Felt really good for the defense. It looks good on the scoreboard, but there are still things we need to work on. Some things have to be corrected. It's gonna be fun watching the film, but we're going to make sure, starting tomorrow, we're game-ready for UCLA [next week]."
"We executed," added a smiling Hayes. "We didn't have a lot of penalties , and we were able to put up a lot of points. A good win. Our coaches told us not to be lackadaisical; don't look at the scoreboard. Do what you'd do in any other game. Hopefully this was a positive look for the fans." When asked about his understudy, Cooper, Hayes smiled even bigger: "Jarvis had a great game today."
The Tigers travel to Southern California next week to face UCLA, who beat Virginia earlier today. The Bruins are a consensus top-10 team. Memphis has not beaten a ranked opponent since upsetting Tennessee in November 1996.
"I did not see this one coming. We had a great week of practice. Guys were ready to play; fired up. In the first half, and really the majority of the game, we played not to lose, instead of playing to win. We played timid. It's just one of those things."
Memphis coach Josh Pastner looked beaten in addressing the media following Thursday night's drubbing at the hands of the UConn Huskies. Having lost twice to the Huskies already, he should have at least seen a formidable challenge staring his Tigers down as the American Athletic Conference tournament gained steam. The beating was as thorough as any of the nine Memphis has taken this season. For all intents and purposes, the game ended when UConn forward Niels Giffey drained his fifth three-pointer of the game to give his Huskies a 51-33 lead with just under 16 minutes to play. (Connecticut outscored Memphis 21-20 the rest of the way.) With the win UConn becomes the first team to beat the Tigers three times in the same season since Cincinnati beat Memphis four times during the 1991-92 campaign. And for the first time in seven conference tournaments held at FedExForum, the host team will not play in the championship game.
Just how ugly was this affair. Take a deep breath:
• In the first half, Memphis made six field goals and turned the ball over eight times.
• The Tigers trailed by 12 just 13 minutes into the game and by 14 at halftime.
• The four senior guards Pastner has leaned so heavily upon — Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson, and Michael Dixon — combined to miss 28 of 38 shots and handed out a total of three assists.
• The Tigers' two major award winners — Sixth Man Dixon and Rookie of the Year Austin Nichols — were a combined 0 for 10 from the field.
• The Tigers' two big men — Nichols and Shaq Goodwin — combined to take only six shots. Goodwin made one.
• Memphis took 24 more free throws (37-13) than did UConn. Had they made all 17 that they missed, they still would have lost the game by two points.
What is it the Huskies have on the Tigers? Ask the American's Player of the Year, Husky guard Shabazz Napier (a pedestrian 11 points Thursday night): "It's the way Memphis plays defense," he said. "They double-team on a lot of pick-and-rolls, and that leaves guys like Niels open. And we have some great shooters on our squad. If you give them time to shoot the ball, you see what happens."
Giffey was lights out, hitting nine of 11 from the field, and six of eight from three-point range for a game-high 24 points. DeAndre Daniels added 13 and Ryan Boatright 11 for the 21st-ranked Huskies, who will now face 13th-ranked Cincinnati in the American semifinals Friday night. (5th-ranked Louisville will play Houston in the other semi.)
The 19th-ranked Tigers (23-9) are left to ponder how low their seeding for the NCAA tournament will drop, their record now 5-5 this season against ranked opponents. "There were breakdowns in a lot of areas," said Pastner. "They're a great three-point shooting team. Any loss needs to be put on my shoulders." Pastner insisted his team's goal remains to win not one, but two games next week when the NCAA tournament gets underway. Two victories would return Memphis to the Sweet 16 for the first time in five years.
"We have to hold ourselves accountable to make shots," said Johnson. "We've got to get back to the drawing board. No one's gonna give us any sympathy. I'm disgusted with myself. I know we're better than that. The country knows we're better than that."
Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford have played 136 games together as college teammates, which explains the loud and lengthy standing ovation each received in today's pregame Senior Day ceremony. Trouble is, the two native sons played the first half against 18th-ranked SMU like the emotions of the salute hampered their skills.
But second halves count, too. Jackson drilled a three-pointer from near the top of the arc — only his second trey in seven games — to give the Tigers a 33-30 lead just 45 seconds after the break. The field goal (Jackson's second of the contest) finished a 7-0 Memphis run that erased the 30-26 lead SMU held at halftime. Another Jackson three-pointer with 14 minutes to play regained the lead for the U of M (41-39), and helped spur a 20-7 run during which every point came courtesy of a Tiger senior.
Having missed all four of his shots in the first half, Crawford ignited from outside with a three-pointer from the left corner that extended the Memphis lead to 50-41 with 10:50 to play. The pride of Sheffield High School hit two more treys over the next two minutes, stretching the Tiger advantage to 12 points, enough to weather a pair of late Mustang runs and clinch the home team's 23rd win of the season.
"I'm an emotional guy, and it got to me a little bit," said Crawford after the game, acknowledging the weight of his Senior Day moment. "I've been here for some struggles, and a lot of great memories. What's most important, we got the win. I'm a shooter, and my coaches and teammates have a lot of confidence in me. They told me to keep shooting. I saw the first one go in, and we were able to gain some momentum."
The teams each entered the game having lost their last contest, neither having lost two in a row all season. The win avenges a 15-point loss Memphis suffered in Dallas on February 1st and all but assures the 20th-ranked Tigers will complete the regular season having been ranked in the Top 25 every week. Each team finishes the regular season with an overall record of 23-8 and 12-6 in American Athletic Conference play. The Tigers were 5-4 against ranked opponents.
"We were poor offensively in the first half," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner, alluding to the Tigers' 34-percent shooting and 0-for-6 showing from three-point range over the game's first 20 minutes. "But we defended, unlike Thursday [at Cincinnati]. Austin Nichols and Nick King made big plays to allow us to stay close." Nichols scored 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while fellow-freshman King scored seven points and earned seven rebounds in 17 minutes.
"Chris Crawford hit big shots," added Pastner. "Joe Jackson hit a three pointer [early in the second half] and it seemed contagious. We made threes in the second half, which allowed us to get the victory. A great win. Those senior guards really came through for us in the second half."
Michael Dixon hit a short jumper, scored on a layup, and stole the ball during the Tigers' game-shifting run. Limited to 16 minutes by foul trouble, Dixon only scored nine points, ending a streak of 11 in a row with at least 10. After scoring only three points in the first half, Jackson poured in 15 in the second to lead the Tigers. His total of 18 would have been more had he not missed five of nine free throws. The Tigers shot 59 percent in the second half and hit six of 13 three-point attempts.
"I was very frustrated at halftime," said Jackson. "It was a change in attitude for the second half, just be aggressive no matter what they do. Sometimes this team looks methodical out there, and I have to turn on an extra gear. In the first half, we tried to play halfcourt basketball too much; we didn't get any transition points. I told Coach we have to run, to speed up the tempo. I have the ability to do whatever I want to on the court, but sometimes I wait till it's too late. It hurt our team, because they expected me to take over early."
Like Crawford, Jackson admitted an emotional impact on Senior Day. "Today was a great day to be a Tiger," he said. "It's been a long haul for me. I'm blessed for the opportunity. It was a fun atmosphere out there."
"I'm so proud of our seniors," said Nichols. "The way they finished the game reflects their character. It's awesome to be on the court with them, just to have them around."
The Tigers' next game will be in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament. They'll face Connecticut next Thursday night (8 p.m.) at FedExForum. The Huskies won both games against Memphis in the regular season.
A cocktail of desperation and determination can do wonders for a college basketball team. Less than 48 hours after their most deflating loss of the season, the Memphis Tigers reeled off an impossibly improbable 15-1 run to end this afternoon's nationally televised game and beat their arch-rivals from Louisville for the second time in less than two months. The victory gives Memphis its first season sweep of the Cardinals since Larry Finch's last season as head coach (1996-97). As the fates would have it, it's the second such sweep by Memphis when the Cardinals were the reigning national champions, as the Tigers beat Louisville three times (including in the Metro Conference tournament) in the 1986-87 campaign.
"We're a veteran team," emphasized Chris Crawford, one of the Tigers' late-game heroes with a three-pointer from the top of the arc that gave Memphis a 68-65 lead with 1:36 to play. "We're going to stay poised regardless of the situation. We've been through a lot. Basketball's a game of runs, and we made the last run to come away with the win."
The Tigers led the entire first half despite 15 points from Louisville's star guard, Russ Smith. Memphis scored the game's first six points and led by as many as seven (27-20) before settling for a 36-31 lead at the break.
But the Cardinals — who entered the contest on a seven-game winning streak — went on a 13-4 run over the first five minutes of the second half. Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell was a man among boys for Louisville, throwing down three alley-oop dunks, one from such heights that the new banner honoring Tiger great Larry Kenon seemed to flutter in the rafters of FedExForum. Harrell's slam following an offensive rebound with 4:44 to play gave the visitors a 65-57 lead.
A driving layup under pressure by Tiger guard Michael Dixon closed the gap to 65-63 with 3:15 left, then Geron Johnson stripped Smith of the ball and drove to the rim for his own layup to tie the score. Crawford connected for his fourth three-pointer of the game and the Tigers hit four of six free throws over the game's last 63 seconds to seal the biggest home win of Tiger coach Josh Pastner's career.
"It was six-on-five because of our fan base," said Pastner. "They were so loud. That was a big-time win, a great bounce-back win against a great team. I didn't sleep until last night [after Thursday's loss at Houston]. There's no better time to hug a win than today."
Memphis hit six of nine three-point attempts while the Cardinals misfired on 19 of 23 shots from behind the arc. And the Tigers won despite getting virtually no offensive production from senior guard Joe Jackson (one for seven from the field) and sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin (one for eleven). Dixon led the U of M with 18 points, his 10th straight game with at least 10 on the scoreboard. Johnson added 15, Crawford 12, and freshman forward Austin Nichols scored 14. Tasked with battling the fearsome Harrell most of the game, Goodwin did pull down 10 rebounds and added four steals and three blocks.
"It's a big win for the city," said Crawford. "We played as a unit. That's definitely one of the biggest threes of my career. I had to knock it down for my teammates."
"We stayed the course," said Dixon. "It paid off. We've got a lot of good players, and a lot of them stepped up today. Louisville's a good team; we were just better today. I have the utmost faith in this team. We have a lot of resiliency. When Chris hit that three, I've never heard a place that loud. And I've played in some big-time arenas. Coach and Chris had a real heart-to-heart after the Houston game. Stay confident."
The loss drops the 7th-ranked Cardinals to 24-5 on the season (13-3 in the American Athletic Conference), while the 21st-ranked Tigers improve to 22-7 (11-5). Memphis holds out hope of gaining the coveted third seed in the AAC tournament, to be played at FedExForum March 12-15. With Louisville departing for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, a potential third game between these two longtime foes (today was their 89th meeting) would carry extra weight.
For now, the Tigers will relish a win over one of their league's heavyweights, while turning their attention toward a rematch with the 11th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats next Thursday in Ohio. The plan moving forward? Says Johnson, "Stay humble and determined."
Over his first four seasons as a head coach, Josh Pastner was Conference USA's top spokesman, selling his team's league as being far superior to its reputation. Keeping with that approach, it seems Pastner's Tigers are now doing what they can to sell the rest of the country on the top-to-bottom strength of the American Athletic Conference. Two nights after escaping Rutgers (now 10-17) with a five-point win, the U of M needed overtime to beat a Temple team that entered play tonight sporting a record of 7-18.
Senior guard Joe Jackson finally gave the Tigers the lead for good (78-77) by converting a driving layup to the front of the rim with 2:33 left in the extra period. Following a Temple turnover, sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin got inside for a dunk (on a feed from Jackson) for the final two of his 20 points, all but two of them coming after halftime. Goodwin was ferocious over a six-minute stretch late in the second half, hitting five field goals (three of them dunks) as the teams essentially traded baskets over the game's final ten minutes. Temple had chance to win the game at the end of regulation but a short jumper by Owl guard Will Cummings (24 points on the night) missed its target. A desperation three-point attempt by Austin Nichols — the Tigers' star of the game — was well off the mark as the buzzer sounded with the game tied at 74.
"People try to overlook Temple, like they didn't just beat SMU," said Goodwin. "Every team in this conference is a good team. You can't take any team likely."
As for his second-half explosion, Goodwin said, "I just try to keep my head, stay with the game plan. Things usually open up in the second half. Stay level-headed and do the best I can do."
Goodwin's partner in crime in the frontcourt, Nichols, tallied the first double-double of his college career, and almost made it the Memphis program's fourth triple double: 17 points, 12 rebounds, 7 blocks. "Awesome, awesome," said Goodwin. "He just does what he has to do. Some games, he doesn't have to score that many points. But tonight, with mismatches, we tried to go to him every play."
The Tigers shot 57 percent from the floor and dominated the game inside, outscoring the Owls 56-36 in the paint. But Temple managed to hit 11 three-pointers (on 31 attempts) and the Tigers missed 12 of 21 free throws to keep things far too interesting for a FedExForum crowd of 18,172.
"We were fortunate to stop them when we needed to, and get away with the win," conceded Tiger guard Michael Dixon, who scored 12 points off the bench. "A lot of their shots, we had hands in their faces; they were just able to knock them down. They got a couple of big offensive rebounds we should have come away with."
And about those struggles at the foul line? "We've got to do a better job," said Dixon. "You gotta go up there, take a deep breath, bend your knees, and get good arc on the ball. If you stress on it, it can become magnified. It's a free shot. You gotta make it. Gotta have the right guys up there."
Jackson scored 12 points and handed out eight assists for the Tigers while Geron Johnson added 10 points. Quenton Decosey (23) and Dalton Pepper (20) were among three Owls to score at least 20 points.
The victory improves the Tigers' record to 21-6 and 10-4 in AAC play. They'll travel to Houston for their next game on Thursday. Memphis beat the Cougars by 23 at FedExForum January 23rd.
Among college basketball teams on nine-game losing streaks, the UCF Knights have to be the best in the country. For the second time in two weeks, Isaiah Sykes and friends battled the nationally ranked Memphis Tigers well into the second half before succumbing. The visitors outrebounded the Tigers (39-27) and outscored Memphis 48-44 in the paint, just enough to test the nerves of 15,021 fans at FedExForum.
With the score tied at 48 and 9:05 to play in the game, senior guard Chris Crawford received a pass in the left corner and did what such moments require: He buried a three-pointer to finally lift that crowd from their 15,021 seats. Fellow senior Joe Jackson snagged an offensive rebound and rose to convert a bank shot, then Michael Dixon — one more senior guard — connected to extend the Memphis lead to seven (59-52) with 4:40 to play. By the time reserve center David Pellom delivered a breakaway dunk with 3:29 left, the Tigers had enjoyed an 18-8 run over an eight-minute stretch to clinch their 19th win of the season.
"My teammates just found me," said Crawford after the game. "That was a big three; we needed it. But it all starts on the defensive end. We got some stops there, got out in transition for some easy buckets. Our defense carried over to our offense. They're better than their record, but as a group, I didn't feel like we had as much energy out there tonight as we could have. We've got a couple of days to get ready, and we'll be ready to play Saturday."
Thanks largely to Sykes (14 points) and Tristan Spurlock (18 points and 10 rebounds), the Knights fought back from a 13-point first-half deficit to take the lead (39-38) five minutes into the second half. But UCF misfired from three-point range (4 for 17) and committed 15 turnovers (seven of them by Sykes), leaving enough opening for the 20th-ranked Tigers to prevail for the 16th time in 17 meetings between the two former C-USA programs.
Senior guard Joe Jackson led Memphis with 18 points and moved past Chris Douglas-Roberts into ninth place on the U of M career scoring chart. (With 1,559 points, Jackson trails Bill Cook by 70.) Shaq Goodwin contributed 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, and a pair of blocks, and Crawford and Dixon each scored 10 points.
"I'm thankful for the win," said Goodwin. "Basketball's a game of runs. They went on a run, then we went on a run. They got a lot of offensive rebounds . [Coach Josh Pastner] wasn't happy at all with that, but he's happy with the win."
The Tigers improved to 8-3 in American Athletic Conference play, still two games in the loss column behind Cincinnati with seven regular-season games to play. They'll travel to UConn Saturday for a chance to avenge the 10-point loss to the Huskies at FedExForum on January 16th.
Joe Jackson will not forget his 22nd birthday. Neither will 7'1" Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski. For that matter, 18,248 Tiger basketball fans were prepared to line up and light candles after Saturday night's comeback win at FedExForum. The memories will have little to do with the 10 points the Tigers' top scorer put on the board. It's the two points the 6'1" guard kept off the board.
With the Tigers clinging to life, down 42-31 with 13:45 to play, Jackson swept down to the baseline as a backside defender. When Karnowski rose to dunk the ball after a feed from David Stockton, Jackson rose with him and and picked up his second blocked shot of the season (and 19th of his college career). The ensuing roar shook FedExForum, energized a national TV audience, and sparked the U of M toward a 29-12 run to finish the game and hand the 23rd-ranked Zags only their fourth defeat of the season. The victory gives Jackson and fellow seniors Chris Crawford and Trey Draper 100 wins for their careers in blue and gray.
"Shaq Goodwin has a bad habit of gambling," said Jackson with a smile after the game. "He fronted the post, and I knew that was John Stockton's son making that pass. I just tried to make a play on the ball. Honestly, I was trying not to get dunked on; he was so close to the rim. I jumped to block it and I was successful that time. That kind of changed the game."
The Zags took an early lead, allowed Memphis to reel off 11 straight points, then scored 12 straight themselves in a less-than-fluid first half that saw the Tigers shoot 26 percent and the Zags miss seven of eight three-point attempts. (Gonzaga led 25-22 at halftime.) Steady inside play from Karnowski (12 points) and Sam Dower (18 points on 9 of 12 shooting) helped Gonzaga to that 12-point lead before the block heard 'round the Bluff City.
Freshman Nick King stayed on the floor for most of the second half, contributing seven rebounds (four of them on the offensive end) and six points. He was the central character in Tiger coach Josh Pastner's rather brilliant management of a rotation damaged by foul trouble (to Shaq Goodwin), injury (David Pellom's sore knee), and ejection (Dominic Woodson after a flagrant foul against Karnowski early in the second half).
"Nick King came in and gave us a huge spark," said Pastner. "Fifty-fifty balls. He stayed ready, came in, and did his job. He was an energy changer." King's extended minutes came at the expense of senior guard Geron Johnson, who played a season-low 18 minutes.
"That win was based on guts," added Pastner. "We learned from our losses to Cincinnati and UConn, and didn't allow an avalanche after we got hit in the mouth. The fans were tremendous; loudest I've heard it here. And winning in front of that 1973 team was really special. It was as fun a game as I've been involved with."
Living members of the 1972-73 NCAA runner-up team were saluted at halftime, joined by the widows of Gene Bartow and Larry Finch. Considering the late comeback — Memphis outscored the Zags 17-4 over the game's final 5:45 — you had the feeling the spirit of Finch, Bartow, and Ronnie Robinson were very much in play at the corner of Beale and Third.
"This was one of the best wins of the year, and I'm just so happy," said guard Michael Dixon, who scored on a fastbreak layup with just over a minute to play to give the Tigers a 55-54 lead. "A lot of guys stepped up. Nick King. Dominic Woodson. We stuck to the plan. One thing you can always control is your defensive intensity. We didn't fold and came away with the win."
And Jackson's big block? "There were so many huge plays in this game, but that was probably the biggest," said Dixon. "Joe's an athletic guy, but it threw me for a loop. He came out of nowhere. Joe wants to win. He's a warrior and he made a huge play."
The Tigers held Gonzaga — a team that came in averaging 7.8 three-pointers per game — to 2-for-16 shooting beyond the arc. Precisely the prescription for victory, according to Pastner. "I told the guys, 'Do not let them get threes.' They can score all the two-point field goals they want. But we had to take the three out. We were able to stay at home on their shooters. Michael Dixon was really big defensively."
Crawford hit three three-pointers and tied Dixon for a team-high 11 points. (He hit a pair of free throws in the final minute despite a severe calf cramp.) Goodwin added 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks despite being limited to 28 minutes for his four fouls.
The 24th-ranked Tigers improved to 18-5 with the win and will return to American Athletic Conference play Wednesday night when UCF visits FedExForum. For a team and young coach hungry for defining wins, a comeback in early February with ESPN's "GameDay" crew in the building could do wonders come seeding time for the NCAA tournament in March. One blocked shot — by an unlikely defender — could go a very long way.
As the Tigers cling to membership in the country's Top 25, they've come to establish themselves as masters of the bounceback win. Tonight at FedExForum — and for the fifth time this season — the U of M erased the memory of a loss in its previous outing with a victory. And for the fourth time, the bounceback was decisive.
The sparse crowd had barely tucked away its umbrellas before the Tigers knocked the Scarlet Knights off their proverbial horse. Behind nine early points from freshman forward Austin Nichols, the Tigers took a 22-3 lead eight-and-a-half minutes into the game. Back-to-back three-pointers by senior Chris Crawford four minutes later extended the lead to 37-9. Rutgers would not close within 20 points the remainder of the contest.
"We didn't want the loss at SMU to really affect us," said Nichols, who finished with 18 points (on 8-of-9 shooting) in 27 minutes. "We trust the process. We played more inside-out basketball. If we continue to do that, I think we'll be a successful team."
As for his performance, Nichols felt there was a right-place-right-time component to his highest scoring output since November. "It helps knowing my teammates have confidence in me," he said. "I felt like I was in the right positions at the right time. I kept running the floor. Teammates were giving me the ball in position to score."
Nichols was but one of six Tigers with at least a dozen points, Joe Jackson adding 16, Michael Dixon 15, Shaq Goodwin 13, and Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson with 12 each. After hitting only six of 24 three-point attempts last Saturday at SMU, Memphis drilled 12 of 19 tonight, Crawford leading the way with four. The pride of Sheffield High School has now hit 14 treys in the Tigers' last four games. He also pulled down 11 rebounds and had five assists. As a team, the Tigers dished out 26 assists, the eighth time this season they've reached 20 dimes.
"We played with a sense of urgency," said Dixon. "The seniors, we've got 10 more games [in the regular season]. We've got to play like we're in a fox hole.
Memphis, now 17-5 (7-3 in the American) held Rutgers to 41 percent from the field. Kadeem Jack paced the visitors with 12 points.
Next for the 24th-ranked Tigers will be a nonconference tilt with Gonzaga, the Bulldogs visiting Saturday night for a game that will be featured on ESPN's "GameDay." (This will be the third time FedExForum has hosted the broadcast crew. Memphis lost to Louisville in 2005 and fell to Tennessee in 2008.)
"It's gonna be fun," said Dixon with a grin. "I'm fortunate. I got to play in a 'GameDay' game [with Missouri] against Kansas. I know what it's like with all the fans, all the excitement."
The path to a high NCAA tournament seed is paved with winning streaks. In beating an undermanned South Florida team Sunday afternoon at FedExForum, the Tigers gained a third consecutive victory in what they hope will be a run that boosts the team back into the nation's top 20, perhaps to the top of the American Athletic Conference, and into the realm of seeds four (or higher) come March's big dance.
Memphis started the game flat, as though the Bulls — entering the game on a three-game losing streak — weren't capable of drawing the best out of the home team. (The Tigers beat USF by 15 on New Year's Eve in Tampa.) With 3:55 to play in the first half, the Tigers led by only two (24-22). But back-to-back three pointers by Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford fueled a 10-0 run to end the half and give the U of M a 34-22 lead. The Tigers' hot shooting had only begun.
Over the course of the first nine minutes of the second half, Memphis hit seven treys, three by Crawford who recently became the fourth player in the program's history to hit 200 for his career. The Tiger lead grew to 23 (56-33) with 12:36 left to play and Memphis coach Josh Pastner was able to expand his rotation the rest of the game.
Crawford finished with 15 points, Jackson added 14 (with seven assists), and sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin had his fourth double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Geron Johnson added eight points and seven assists and freshman Nick King scored ten points in 16 minutes off the bench.
"We've got one of the greatest shooters in the country in Chris Crawford," said Johnson after the game. "This is going to get him started, hopefully like he was in last year's conference tournament. We've got to stay focused. My focus level wasn't up, but that happens in the game of basketball. We don't want to play close games."
While the Tigers missed 15 of 35 free throws (the seventh game this season they've missed at least ten), they picked up 23 assists on 25 field goals, a remarkable percentage that speaks well for the team's collective effort to share the ball. "That's phenomenal," said Johnson. "That's unselfish basketball. We've got great character guys. We're just having fun, working the ball. The open man is the go-to man."
The Tigers held USF to 34-percent shooting from the field. Ridgeway alum Martino Brock led the Bulls with 17 points off the bench. He was the only USF player to reach double figures.
Crawford was pleased with his team's hot outside shooting, but emphasized that it came within the normal flow of a game. "Our inside-out philosophy has been working," said Crawford. "Everybody's so unselfish. When you make a couple of shots, you're gonna take at least one bad three, just to see how it's looking. But we're letting the shots come to us."
When exactly did Crawford know he had a hot hand? "As soon as the first one in the second half went in," he said. As a team, the Tigers hit ten three-pointers for the first time this season.
Now 15-4 (5-2 in the AAC), the 23rd-ranked Tigers will travel to Orlando and face UCF next Wednesday. After that, it's a road tilt with a rising SMU program (February 1) before a return to FedExForum to play Rutgers (February 4).
Let's call tonight's Tiger victory a stabilizer.
The country's 23rd-ranked team has spent much of January winning league games on the road (Louisville, Temple) and losing league games at FedExForum (Cincinnati, Connecticut). The schizophrenic performances yielded a 3-2 record in American Athletic Conference play, good for a less-than-impressive fourth place in the standings entering tonight's contest with Houston (also 3-2 in the AAC). To lose a third straight league game at Third and Beale? What's the opposite of stabilizer?
Sophomore Shaq Goodwin scored 12 points in the first five minutes tonight, helping the Tigers seize a 14-4 lead they would not relinquish. Three of Goodwin's early field goals were of the slam-dunk variety, helping Memphis accumulate 11 jams over the course of the game (against a program that gave us, remember, Phi Slamma Jamma so many seasons ago). A 10-3 run to end the first half gave the Tigers a 47-32 lead. Senior guard Michael Dixon hit four of five shots (including two three-pointers) over the first 20 minutes to lead a Tiger offense that shot 61 percent before halftime and 59 percent for the game. Goodwin (20 points) and Dixon (13) were joined by Joe Jackson (18) atop the scoring column for Memphis.
"We played with a sense of urgency today," said Dixon. "We locked in on defense. It was a collective team effort on defense. Our [offensive] game-plan is always to play inside-out, and we did that tonight. A lot of things happen well when you play defense. My teammates put me in position to make plays tonight and I did."
Coming off the bench for an energy boost — again — was senior forward David Pellom. The transfer from George Washington drew two offensive fouls in the first half, hit all three of his field goal attempts, pulled down seven rebounds and dished out a pair of assists — one on a mini-lob to Goodwin for a second-half dunk — in just 16 minutes off the bench.
"We lost two conference games at home, and if you want to be great, you can't do that," said Pellom. "Tonight, I took an early charge and felt amped. We played with a lot of energy from start to finish. If we keep high energy, the sky's the limit for us."
Tiger coach Josh Pastner agreed with Pellom's assessment. "We held a 40-percent three-point shooting team to 14 percent. That was our energy. Everyone who played contributed; there was no slippage. We're a very good basketball team when we play with great energy."
Pastner described a "defensive boot camp" he instituted last Sunday. Over the course of two practices that totaled three-and-a-half hours this week, precisely 15 minutes were devoted to shooting drills. Everything else was defense. The Cougars were limited to 43 percent from the field and were outscored 48-36 in the paint. Houston scored only seven second-chance points.
Cougar star TaShawn Thomas wasn't allowed to make a difference, finishing the game with 14 points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes.
The win improves the Tigers' record to 14-4 (4-2 in the AAC). They remain two games behind league leader Cincinnati (winners tonight over UCF). Memphis will finish a four-game home stand Sunday when the South Florida Bulls (10-9, losers of three straight) come to town. Stability remains the goal.