This was exhibition basketball in January. The result will count in the books. The numbers will pad the player stats. But this was a barely glorified exhibition game in front of 14,021 fans — or at least sold seats — at FedExForum. Memphis coach Josh Pastner, to his credit, honored a commitment for what amounts to a $25,000 payday for the Magician athletic department. On the heels of a four-game stretch that featured Cincinnati, Louisville, Temple, and Connecticut, the Tigers will take the win, however packaged. (The victory, alas, will not be factored into the Tigers' RPI figure, LeMoyne-Owen being a Division 2 program.)
"When you're coming off a tough loss, you have to get one back," said Tiger guard Geron Johnson, who scored 12 points and dished out seven assists in a team-high 23 minutes of playing time. "You can't take any game for granted. A win's a win. It's another game on the schedule, one you have to play and win."
The Magicians waved a wand for six minutes after the opening tip, but 12-12 was the last tie score they enjoyed. The Tigers scored 15 points over the last four minutes of the first half to pull away with a lead of 19 (52-33) at halftime.
The mismatch made for some unique numbers, relative to the Tigers' first 16 games of the season:
• Thirteen Tigers made it onto the floor and every one of them scored. Contrast this with a team that had seen its rotation squeezed to seven players over the first four games of the new year.
• Freshman center Dominic Woodson enjoyed his most playing time (16 minutes) of the season and managed a rare 5-5-5: points, rebounds, and fouls.
• Freshman forward Nick King played his most minutes (23) of the season and led Memphis with 18 points.
• Freshman forward Kuran Iverson played 22 minutes and with 11 points outscored starters Joe Jackson (4) and Chris Crawford (9).
• Walk-ons Trey Draper and Jake McDowell each hit late free throws. Draper's was his first point of the season and drew a big cheer from the crowd for being the Tigers' 100th of the game.
Demba Konate came off the bench to lead LeMoyne-Owen with 17 points. The Magicians grabbed but one fewer rebound (44) than did the Tigers.
"It was fun," said freshman forward Austin Nichols. "A lot of the young kids got to play. We got to work on stuff we don't usually get to work on in games. It was a game to remember who we are, get down to the basics, and just have fun." Nichols hit all six of his shots from the field to score 12 points in 19 minutes. As a team, the Tigers shot 58 percent from the field and hit six of 19 from three-point range (three of them by Crawford).
"This was a bounce-back game for us," said King, who reached double figures in scoring for the first time since opening his college career with three such games. "I'm learning a lot, just how to help my teammates. Kuran and I play with the same group in practice, and there's a certain bond we have, knowing we have to work hard every minute we're on the court. It's basketball. I know I can help this team in big games."
The big games will return Thursday night when the Tigers (now 13-4) host Houston at FedExForum.
NOTE: Senior guard Joe Jackson saw his streak of games with at least 10 points end at 14. But the pride of White Station High School did manage to pass Andre Turner and move into 12th on the Memphis career scoring chart. With 44 more points, Jackson will climb past Doom Haynes and Kelly Wise and into the top 10.
Nights like this are part of the deal.
When the University of Memphis left Conference USA behind for the new — and superior — American Athletic Conference, Tiger fans embraced the upgrade in regular-season competition. Instead of Marshall or Rice on a Wednesday night in mid-January, they could look forward to Cincinnati for a Saturday matinee or UConn in a Thursday night affair televised across the country.
Welcome to that new world. Home-court advantage ain't what it used to be.
"To win a conference championship," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after his team's second straight home loss, "you have to protect your home court and steal a few on the road. We've managed to steal a few on the road, but we're not protecting home court."
UConn's junior forward DeAndre Daniels did his best Scottie Pippen impression, hitting four of five three-point attempts, scoring 23 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and blocking three shots to steal the spotlight from Shabazz Napier, the Huskies' All-America candidate who managed but 17 points (and missed seven of his eight three-point tries). Daniels and Napier each hit a big shot inside the game's final two minutes to clinch the victory for UConn, a win that evens their AAC record at 2-2 (while dropping the Tigers to 3-2 in league play).
The teams played the first half in much the way you'd expect a game on the second weekend of the NCAA tournament to be played. They combined for ten three-pointers (including at least one from each of the Tigers' four acclaimed senior guards), the last one by Husky point guard Ryan Boatright to draw the visitors within one (40-39) at the break.
UConn sprinted into the second half on a 10-2 run in just two and a half minutes of playing time. The Tigers seemed to slow the Huskies with a zone defense, but were never able to seize and expand a lead. Sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin buried a ten-foot jumper from the right side to tied the game at 62 with 5:20 to play, but Napier answered with a jumper of his own to retake a lead the Huskies would not relinquish.
Down 75-71 with a minute to play, the Tigers forced a turnover at the Husky end of the floor, but Joe Jackson left a driving layup-attempt short on the next possession. Connecticut buried six free throws to cushion the lead as the clock finally expired.
Sixth man Michael Dixon led the Tigers with 16 points, but shook his head after a loss that ended the weeklong revelry over his team's upset of Louisville. "I think this is the best league in the country," he said. "They lose two games [to Houston and SMU], then come here and beat us. We're a good team."
Added freshman forward Austin Nichols (13 points, 5 rebounds), "We gotta bounce back. We'll be fine. They were more aggressive than us, and that's definitely got to change. We have to protect home court; that's one of the most important things. We know the fans are excited, and we're excited. It's a little disappointing."
The Huskies shot 57 percent for the game (the Tigers 43 percent) and outrebounded Memphis, 34-27. Shaq Goodwin scored 10 points but pulled down only two rebounds in 26 minutes.
"We had some opportunities where we needed to make some big shots," said Pastner, "and we did not. I was disappointed with our guard rebounding besides Geron Johnson [who had six]. Shaq wasn't as good as he's been; we need him to be better."
The Memphis coach acknowledged the star of the night. "Daniels is a hard matchup. He plays their four spot, or five, and our [big] guys aren't used to [that kind of shooting]. We got sucked in [defensively], and they kicked it out for open threes. We didn't get stops. I was disappointed with our small lineup. They beat us on penetration."
The Tigers' next opponent, alas, is not a recent national champion. In fact, Memphis (now 12-4 overall) will host an intra-city contest when LeMoyne-Owen visits FedExForum Saturday afternoon. Pastner scheduled the game as a promise to the school when an earlier exhibition game was replaced by a preseason scrimmage against another Division I opponent.
It will be an odd break in what's proving to be a rigorous 18-game fire dance through the AAC. "This is a very good league," said senior guard Chris Crawford, who spent his first three college seasons waltzing through C-USA. "But we have a lot more basketball to play. We can't let this loss soak in on us. Gotta regroup and get ready for the next game.
The Tigers renewed one of their oldest rivalries today at FedExForum, only to receive a humbling reminder that life in the American Athletic Conference — with friends like Cincinnati — includes bumps and bruises on the way to March. The Bearcats were tougher, bigger, and even played faster than the pace-pushing Tigers, winning their 13th game of the season behind 18 points from Sean Kilpatrick and a muscle-flexing game from senior forward Justin Jackson: 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 blocked shots.
As for the home team, shots didn't fall, particularly from long range, making the outcome all too predictable for coach Josh Pastner. "I've said this before, and I'll say it all season: When our four senior guards play poorly collectively — and they did today — we're going to struggle. We put a lot of eggs in their basket."
Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford, and Michael Dixon combined to shoot 2-for-17 from three-point range. While Jackson scored 13 points to lead the Tigers, his three backcourt running mates combined to miss 28 of the 36 shots they tossed at the rim. "If you don't make shots," said Pastner, "it sucks the life out of you. If we make some threes, we're talking about a different situation."
The Tigers lifted a raucous crowd of 17,191 early in the game, with Johnson and Jackson delivering dunks on the way to an early 8-4 Memphis lead. The Tigers maintained the lead for most of the first half, until the Bearcats went on an 8-2 run over the final four minutes before the break. Despite shooting 33 percent over the game's first 20 minutes, Cincinnati led, 27-26, at halftime. The Bearcats scored 10 of those points on second-chance opportunities, relentlessly hitting the offensive glass.
With Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols struggling inside, Pastner turned to David Pellom and the senior transfer showed the energy he's come to personify for this veteran team. He scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in 23 minutes, but went to the bench with four fouls and more than 10 minutes left in the game. Cincinnati stretched a five-point lead to 10 with just under eight minutes left, and the Tigers never again pulled within a single possession. Goodwin finished with six points and six rebounds in 35 minutes and Nichols didn't get off the bench in the second half. (Nichols is officially in the first slump of his college career. The freshman from Briarcrest hasn't grabbed more than three rebounds six consecutive games.)
"They wanted it more," said Johnson after the game. "They came here and took it from us, got a big win. It's a let-down. We try to take care of business. But we'll get back in the lab. We've got to keep shooting. This game is over with."
The loss will likely drop the 18th-ranked Tigers (now 10-3) out of the Top 20, with the reigning national champion Louisville Cardinals up next on the schedule (Thursday in Kentucky).
"It's a game we can learn from," said Jackson. "It's just one loss. We work too hard not to get better. They did a great job, just stopped us on offense. Cincinnati's a tough-nosed team; you could tell the way they crashed the boards. They were talking on the bench and really wanted to beat us. I feel like, as a unit, we didn't really want to beat them. Like we had something against them. Now, we've got a chip back on our shoulder."
A Tiger team lauded for its depth in November was reduced to six players in the second half against Cincinnati. (Heralded freshman Nick King played a total of three minutes and didn't attempt a field goal.) Despite five of those six players being seniors, the U of M was overmatched by its old rival from the Metro Conference and Conference USA. Great to see you! Good riddance.
"It's no time for a pity party," said Pastner. "Cincinnati has a great team, a great program. We've got to get ready for Thursday."
"[Temple] beat us in every facet of the game. They played better than us, every phase, from the opening kickoff."
Memphis coach Justin Fuente was succinct in his postgame evaluation of Senior Day at the Liberty Bowl, an annual contest for which you'd like to think the home team will play its hardest, grittiest game of a season. As 15 U of M players played their last home game today, though, the Tigers collectively played their worst game of the year. Facing a Temple team at the bottom of the American Athletic Conference standings (1-10 overall record, 0-7 in American play), the Tigers gave up their most points and most yardage (534) of the season. Worse, though, was the Memphis offense. Facing an Owl defense ranked 113th in the country, the Tigers gained but 228 yards and were a woeful 2-of-12 on third down (and 1-of-3 on fourth), one possession after another ending abruptly, often with a Tom Hornsey punt.
Despite running only 18 plays (compared with 52 for Temple) in the first half, the Tigers were very much in the game four minutes into the third quarter after Sam Craft caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Paxton Lynch, one of three touchdowns Craft scored in the game. ("Sam was the only guy who played really well for us," said Fuente. "He showed toughness, grit. I was proud of Sam.") The touchdown closed the Temple lead to 17-14.
But on the next play from scrimmage, Temple quarterback P.J. Walker (like Lynch a freshman) hit tight end Chris Coyer over the middle and Coyer sprinted untouched into the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown. Then just 1:11 of game time later, Sharif Finch broke through the Tiger line and blocked a Hornsey punt into the end zone, where it was recovered by Michael Felton to make the score 31-14. It was the 291st punt of Hornsey's record-breaking career and only the second the Ray Guy Award finalist has had blocked.
The Tigers responded with a 62-yard touchdown drive, converting on fourth-and-four on a Lynch-to Craft connection, Craft then carrying the ball the final three yards for his third touchdown of the game. But Memphis wouldn't threaten to score in the fourth quarter, while the Owls added 10 points to pad their first AAC victory.
"They had a crushing defeat last week [to Connecticut]," said Fuente, "and they showed us how to handle adversity. Their offensive line had their way with our defensive line, their running backs and receivers had their way with our secondary, their linebackers had their way with our running backs. They went to work and showed up here ready to play a football game. They're better than their record. Their quarterback is special."
Walker completed 20 of 32 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns (three of them to Robby Anderson). Jamie Gilmore carried the ball 16 times for 92 yards to lead the Owls. Lynch connected on 19 of 29 passes for 162 yards while senior tailback Brandon Hayes was limited to 38 rushing yards on 16 carries.
When asked about his departing seniors, Fuente was again succinct: "I wish they, and everyone else on this squad, had played better today."
The Tigers (3-8) finish their season next Saturday at Connecticut. After losing their first nine games, the Huskies have won their last two, including a victory over Rutgers today.
Tonight's game at FedExForum offered the Tigers a chance to shake the stink off, four days after a drubbing at Oklahoma State changed the citywide view of where the 2013-14 team is heading. With the words "course correction" in the air, Memphis raced out to a 21-8 lead over the game's first nine minutes and cruised to its second win of the season and final game before next weekend's Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
"I deserve to be criticized after our performance Tuesday night," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after the game. "I knew [our team] would hear a lot of things this week. And I want to take as much of the heat as possible. We're grateful for the coverage we get; that's part of the territory."
"We didn't play Oklahoma State tonight," Pastner added. "I recognize that. This was more about us, and course correction."
Freshman Austin Nichols led the Tigers with 20 points in 24 minutes, hitting nine of 15 field goal attempts. He was one of four native Memphians to reach double figures, with Joe Jackson adding 18 (hitting 14 of 15 from the free-throw line), Chris Crawford 11, and freshman Nick King 12 (despite missing nine of 13 free throws). Michael Dixon (alas, a native of Kansas City) added 16 points and hit all three of his three-point attempts despite suffering a nasty scratch to his left eye early in the game.
The Tigers got to the foul line 50 times (Nicholls committed 37 fouls), but made only 31. They shared the ball well, though, picking up 22 assists on their 31 made field goals.
With 16 points, Jeremy Smith was the only Colonel to reach double digits. Nicholls has lost its first four games of the season, while the Tigers are now 2-1.
When asked if focus was difficult against an inferior opponent, Crawford insisted the Tigers' veterans made sure it was not. "When you're older, you know how important it is for you to stay focused, locked in," he said. "You can't let up; gotta finish. If we execute and do our job, we'll win."
Memphis outrebounded Nicholls, 48-34, Shaq Goodwin leading the way with eight while King and Geron Johnson added six each. Johnson took only two shots but led the Tigers with five assists.
"We've got to continue to get better," said Dixon. "We've got to work on our craft individually, and as a team, then keep moving forward. I think we'll be fine. [Tonight] there was tremendous emphasis on getting the ball inside. Austin Nichols, Dominic Woodson (eight points in seven minutes), and Nick King all did a great a job. That was the biggest thing, getting our big guys involved."
And forget the blowout win, according to Dixon: "That's senior leadership. We've got to play like the score is always zero-zero. And at halftime, they erase the score. It's a new ballgame."
The Tigers will next take the floor Thursday night in Orlando when they face Siena in their opening game of the Old Spice Classic.
Senior guard Chris Crawford pushed the basketball across midcourt, four gray-clad teammates sprinting ahead in transition after an Austin Peay turnover. Crawford delivered the ball to fellow senior Geron Johnson in the right corner. Johnson could have let fly a three-point attempt but instead swung the ball to yet another senior guard, Joe Jackson, on the wing. Jackson could have taken a long-distance shot, but chose to drive into the lane, where his shot bounced off the heel of the rim. But there to flush the rebound was freshman forward Austin Nichols. His dunk gave the Tigers an 81-50 lead and stirred a small (for Tiger basketball) crowd of 15,785.
Each of those fans hopes the play — and the Tigers' season-opener in general — is an indication of the abundance of options Memphis coach Josh Pastner has to call upon this season. The options will be needed, starting next Tuesday when the 13th-ranked Tigers travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to face the 8th-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Much has already been said and written about the Tigers' rare quartet of senior guards, each expected to make an impression on a season of (once again) high expectations. For starters, tonight was quite a show:
• Jackson: 16 points, and 7 assists in 29 minutes.
• Johnson: 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists in 26 minutes.
• Crawford: 11 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals in 23 minutes.
• And making his Memphis debut, Michael Dixon: 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 steals in 24 minutes.
The guard-heavy lineup led a press that wore the visiting Governors down (22 turnovers) and created the kind of quick-strike opportunity the resulted in easy baskets like the Nichols follow-up dunk. Memphis led by 22 (51-29) at halftime and coasted over the game's final 20 minutes.
In addition to Dixon and Nichols (6 points and 5 rebounds), two more freshmen made their college debuts tonight. Nick King came off the bench and scored 13 points in 15 minutes, while center Dominic Woodson converted a pair of baskets and grabbed three rebounds in 15 minutes. (Freshman forward Kuran Iverson served his one-game suspension for a summer-league violation of NCAA rules and will make his debut at Oklahoma State.)
Johnson was ho-hum about his first career double-double, saying "It's good. I'm blessed. Hopefully I'll get more. I'm glad I got 10 rebounds, but it's about time." He was more emphatic about his collection of teammates, and that goes beyond the senior "fab four."
"We're a unit," said Johnson. "It just so happens we have four senior guards. Hopefully we'll get better. Seniors and freshmen, we all have a lot to learn."
Reluctant to sing their own praises, Johnson and Dixon were eager to applaud his teammate's impact tonight in their first game together. "Michael brings leadership and intensity," said Johnson. "He's a versatile guard who knows the game. Did you see him out there? He was getting to the basket like [Derrick] Rose, and he's 5'11"."
And when asked about Johnson, Dixon was just as effusive. "He's all over the floor," said the Missouri transfer. "He brings so much energy to our team, deflecting passes, getting rebounds, cutting guys off. He's one of the best I've ever seen at being on the defensive end, then getting to full speed on offense."
Sophomore Shaq Goodwin (10 points, but only two rebounds and five turnovers) gave the Tigers six players in double-figures in the scoring column. Overall Memphis outrebounded the Governors 50-27. There won't be that kind of edge next Tuesday.
But for tonight, a fast-paced win to open a long season with great expectations. "It was as fun as it looked," said Johnson. He smiled when he said it. Briefly.
Sometimes it's a quick-strike offense. Sometimes it's a bone-crushing defense. And sometimes, it's a thick left upright.
Thanks in part to UT-Martin kicker Jackson Redditt drilling the aforementioned upright not once, but twice, the Tigers kept today's game close enough for a late-arriving offense to seize control and earn the home team its second win of the season. Senior Brandon Hayes and freshman Sam Craft scored touchdowns inside the game's final eight minutes to make the difference in a game that saw Memphis penalized 12 times for 123 yards, allow 164 yards rushing (the Tigers entered the game ranked sixth in the country in rush defense), and turn the ball over twice.
"I told the kids, 'I'm happy for you, but not real proud of you,'" said Memphis coach Justin Fuente after the game. "We've got to be accountable to each other, and we weren't today. We reverted to some old bad habits because the other team was really taking it to us. And that's what bothers me the most." The coach added, "I'll take [a win] any way we can get them."
Among the newsworthy penalties was freshman offensive lineman Tony Mays — a graduate of Whitehaven High School — being ejected for making contact with an official, an infraction Fuente is convinced was inadvertent. Today's game was the first start for Mays. Later in the game, freshman B.J. Ross was flagged for targeting — and ejected — on a punt-coverage tackle, only to have the ejection recalled . . . but the penalty enforced. For conspiracy theorists, today's officiating crew was the same one that penalized the Tigers 15 times for 145 yards at Middle Tennessee on September 14th.
The Tiger defense — backed by that upright — held UTM to six first-half points despite three Skyhawk drives into the red zone. Memphis finally got on the scoreboard 23 seconds before halftime when quarterback Paxton Lynch scurried six yards for a touchdown to cap a 65-yard drive (aided by a pass-interference call on an attempt to Tevin Jones).
Neither team scored in the third quarter, and the Tigers needed an escape from Lynch — almost sacked near midfield — to set up Hayes's touchdown. Spinning 360 degrees and out of the grasp of the UTM rush, Lynch ran down the left sideline for 24 yards. Hayes followed with a 12-yard dash in the same direction for his team-leading sixth touchdown of the season. The Tigers' final score was set up by freshman Doroland Dorceus's only carry of the game, a 32-yard jaunt up the middle of the field on which he fumbled . . . the ball recovered by the Tigers.
"There are a lot of things I do not like about what we put on display today," said Fuente. "But there's teaching and growth to be done from it. We'll learn from it. We didn't handle the surge of them playing well to start the game. That encompasses penalties, poor execution, and turning the ball over."
Senior cornerback Bobby McCain spent most of the game draped over UTM's star receiver Jeremy Butler, who entered the game with 70 catches for 914 yards. Butler caught five passes for 95 yards, but didn't reach the end zone. Like his coach, McCain will take the win and prepare for next week's trip to South Florida.
"We've got to get better," said McCain. "Every win's big. We don't treat it differently if it's homecoming [like today] or on TV."
Hayes starred for the Tiger offense, carrying the ball 27 times for 105 yards. Lynch completed 15 of 22 passes for 189 yards and Craft caught three passes for 83 yards. Terry Redden and Ricky Hunter picked up sacks for the Memphis defense and Anthony Watson had an interception near the Tiger end zone in the fourth quarter to kill a Skyhawk drive.
The Tigers (now 2-6) will finish the season with three of their last four games on the road, starting next Saturday at USF (also 2-6). They'll return home on November 30th to face Temple.
In what's become an annual preseason tune-up between Bluff City basketball teams, Memphis led the Buccaneers of CBU start to finish, cruising after halftime to a 92-63 victory. The game is the one and only formal preseason contest for the Tigers, who open the 2013-14 season next Thursday night at FedExForum against Austin Peay.
The game offered local fans their first look at several Tiger rookies, most notably a group of five freshmen all aspiring for spots in Josh Pastner's rotation. Austin Nichols (late of Briarcrest) started, scored nine points, and grabbed four rebounds in 16 minutes. Nick King (East High School) called to mind former swingman Will Barton, with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals in 22 minutes on the floor. The Tigers' largest player — Dominic Woodson — converted all seven of his field-goal attempts, displaying a soft touch within 10 feet of the basket. Kuran Iverson scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds, bringing Tiger coach Josh Pastner virtually out of his shoes with joy on a put-back dunk in the second half. (Iverson will sit out next week's opener, having been suspended for violating an NCAA regulation on summer-league play.) Markel Crawford (Melrose) played 17 minutes, more than he's likely to see once the Tigers hit the meat of their schedule.
Another new face — senior Michael Dixon, a transfer from Missouri — led Memphis with 18 points and five assists, while fellow senior guard Geron Johnson added 11. Drew Hildreth led the Buccaneers with 18 points off the bench.
The Tigers shot 52 percent from the field for the game, but made only 58 percent of their free throws (15 for 26). They outrebounded the smaller Bucs, 47-34.
Check back Monday for more reflections from tonight's exhibition, and thoughts on the new season ahead.
Memphis hosted a rival from days gone by in a rare Wednesday-night tilt at the Liberty Bowl. Facing Cincinnati for the first time since 2004 (when the Bearcats played their last season in Conference USA), the Tigers made a pair of costly turnovers that led to touchdowns for the visitors. And facing the 7th-ranked defense in the country, Memphis managed only 232 yards in a loss that drops the Tigers to 1-6 on the season (and 0-4 in American Athletic Conference play).
With 23,571 fans forsaking the telecast of the Grizzlies' season opener in San Antonio, the Tigers traded punches with Cincinnati through the first half. They converted a fourth-down attempt deep in Bearcat territory before quarterback Paxton Lynch connected with Tevin Jones for a seven-yard touchdown to give the U of M a 7-0 lead with less than two minutes to play in the opening quarter.
Cincinnati answered with a 13-yard TD dash by backup quarterback Jordan Luallen early in the second quarter, then capitalized on Tiger tailback Marquis Warford's sixth fumble of the season. Having recovered the ball at the Memphis 19, the Bearcats needed but one play — a scamper by Ralph Abernathy — to take the lead for good (14-7) 3:25 before halftime.
Tion Green ran the final two yards of an 11-play, 68-yard Bearcat drive to give the visitors a 21-7 lead just over five minutes into the third quarter. But the Tigers put together their strongest drive of the game to answer: 12 plays, 70 yards in 5:19, the final seven coming on a pass from Lynch to Brandon Hayes.
Down 21-14, the Tiger defense was backed up near its own end zone early in the fourth quarter, only to be rescued by a Bobby McCain interception of a Brendon Kay pass. (McCain returned to action after missing twp games with a knee injury.) Memphis failed to capitalize, though, Lynch throwing an interception himself — falling into the Tiger end zone as he threw the pass — with 8:42 left to play. Kay connected with Anthony McClung for 24 yards just over a minute later to give the Bearcats a 27-14 cushion (the PAT was missed).
On the Tigers' next drive, Hayes electrified the few remaining fans with a 31-yard touchdown run, one that featured a pair of cuts and a dive to the end-zone pylon over the last five yards. The score gives Hayes a team-leading five touchdowns on the season. But Cincinnati marched steadily downfield with its final possession of the game, Tion Green scoring on a three-yard run for the game's final score.
Lynch finished the game completing 17 of 33 passes for 140 yards, while Hayes gained 76 yards on 17 carries to lead the Tigers. Kay hit 27 of 35 passes for 321 yards, while McClung pulled down nine passes for 98 yards to help Cincinnati improve to 6-2 on the season.
The Tigers will next host FCS foe UT-Martin on November 9th, with kickoff scheduled for 3:30 at the Liberty Bowl. Then three of the Tigers' final four games will be played on the road.
You could have tracked the home team's performance today with weather updates. Kicking off at the Liberty Bowl (at 11 a.m.) under gray skies, the University of Memphis looked like one-win teams are expected to look in mid-October: a lifeless offense, porous defense, and large deficit (31-3 at halftime) on the scoreboard.
Then late in the third quarter, just as the sun finally burned the clouds away — creating a rather blinding sparkle off the Tigers' new chrome helmets — Memphis invigorated a small crowd (16,241) with opportunistic defense and special teams, falling a play or two shy of a season-changing comeback victory. Today's silver lining? The Tigers won the second half, 26-3.
Tiger coach Justin Fuente acknowledged his team being outplayed on both sides of the ball — and severely — over the game's first 30 minutes. "It's a combination of several things," he said. "A developing offensive line, young receivers and skill players. They'll make some plays, then they'll make you pull your hair out. We're not good enough at anything to dominate in one area or another."
On the game's second play from scrimmage, SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert found Keenan Holman for a 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown that put the Mustangs up, it turns out, for good. Down 7-3 late in the first quarter, the Tigers were unable to capitalize on a blocked punt, freshman kicker Jake Elliott pushing a 39-yard field goal attempt wide right for the first miss of his college career. Mustang tailback Traylon Shed scored a pair of one-yard touchdowns in the second quarter, one of them after SMU recovered a muffed exchange between Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch and Marquis Warford. (The Tigers have fumbled the ball eight times over their last two games, losing five of them.) At the break, SMU had outgained Memphis, 282 yards to 116.
With the Tigers trailing 34-3 and just over a minute to play in the third quarter, junior linebacker Ryan Coleman stripped the ball from Shed and ran the ball in from 15 yards for the U of M's first touchdown in more than six quarters. Then with less than 10 minutes to play in the game, Coleman snapped up a fumbled punt at the Mustang 19 and pranced in for another six points. (A two-point attempt failed.)
SMU appeared ready to add to the lopsided score with just over seven minutes to play, but sophomore cornerback Reggis Ball stepped in front of a Gilbert pass at the Tiger three, sprinted down the right sideline and then across the field toward the left corner of the end zone. Clear of any Mustang tacklers, Ball chose to dive into the end zone anyway, drawing an excessive-celebration penalty that took the ball back to the Mustang 16-yard line. (Asked about the call after the game, Fuente said, "I like the rule. I'm a big fan of team celebrations. I'm not a fan of any more individualism out there.)
The Tiger offense was finally able to reach pay dirt when Brandon Hayes carried the ball in from the one-yard line with 5:23 left in the game, making the score 34-23, SMU. Despite a Lynch interception on their next possession, the Tigers were again able to close the gap — alas, as time expired — on an eight-yard pass completion from Lynch to Mose Frazier. After gaining 150 yards over the game's first three quarters, Memphis piled up 170 in the fourth period. Lynch completed 26 of 36 passes for 198 yards, while Gilbert was 27 of 43 for 321.
The loss drops Memphis to 1-5 for the season (0-3 in the American Athletic Conference), while SMU improves to 2-4 (1-1).
"I was disappointed with our perimeter game on both sides," said Fuente, "and I felt like, going in, it was an advantage. Defensively, we've been outstanding in our perimeter game. Since halfway through last season, I felt like we dominated the perimeter game. Little wide-receiver screens, we tackled. And on offense, when we did it, we were pretty good at it. I did not feel that way today. The [series] that sticks out in my mind is the one after the blocked punt. Poor execution."
The Tigers were hurt by nine penalties, including a hands-to-face infraction late in the fourth quarter that negated a 68-yard scoring pass from Lynch to Joe Craig. The offense converted only four of 14 third-down opportunities.
Memphis now begins a stretch in which they'll play one game in three weeks, a Wednesday-night tilt at the Liberty Bowl against Cincinnati on October 30th. The Tigers will need to go 5-1 over the season's second half to gain bowl eligibility.
Playing their first American Athletic Conference game, the Tigers came painfully close to their biggest win in several years. Had Memphis passes into the end zone — one by quarterback Paxton Lynch, another by tailback Brandon Hayes — landed in Tiger hands instead of those of their opponents from UCF, the U of M likely celebrates a second straight victory and a 2-2 record. But with those two interceptions, along with a bizarre sequence of close calls over the game's final four minutes, Memphis falls to 1-3 on the season and has now lost nine straight to the Knights.
"I couldn't be more proud of our kids," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente. "That's a group of men that went into battle for each other. We didn't make enough plays to win the game. It's nobody else's fault. It's on us." In all three Memphis losses this season, the Tigers have led or been tied in the fourth quarter.
After forcing UCF to punt after three plays on the game's opening possession, the Tigers drove 67 yards on just seven plays to take a 7-0 lead on a 16-yard scamper by Hayes. (It was the second straight game Memphis has scored on its opening possession.) The drive was highlighted by 26-yard pass from Lynch to tight end Alan Cross.
The Knights capitalized on an interception by Jacoby Glenn late in the first quarter to earn their first points: a 26-yard field goal by Shawn Moffitt. Glenn returned the pick 33 yards and was finally tackled at the Tiger 26-yard line by the man who threw the pass (Lynch).
Memphis drove into the UCF red zone late in the first half, keyed by a 44-yard pass-and-run to Mose Frazier, a 14-yard run by tailback Jai Steib, and a 19-yard connection from Lynch to Joe Craig. A second-down pass from the 8-yard line was dropped in the front corner of the end zone by Adrian Henderson, then Lynch had a deflected pass intercepted by UCF's Terrance Plummer on the next play. Despite holding a dangerous UCF offense to 95 yards over the game's first 30 minutes, the Tigers led only 7-3 at halftime.
William Stanback finished a 12-play UCF drive with a one-yard run to give the visitors the lead with 5:48 left to play in the third quarter. But the Tigers answered with a 48-yard field goal by freshman kicker Jake Elliot to tie the game three minutes later.
With the ball at the UCF 48 early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers lined up in punt formation, only to have punter Tom Hornsey tuck the ball and dart through the right side of the line for a 14-yard gain. With the crowd of 30,274 fully energized, Lynch found Tevin Jones for 21 yards, then handed the ball to freshman Sam Craft, who ran around left end and through three UCF defenders for a touchdown that gave Memphis a 17-10 lead.
That lead appeared to be enough, right up to the 3:11 mark, when UCF faced fourth-and-ten from the Memphis 28-yard line. But Knight quarterback Blake Bortles completed a 15-yard pass to Breshad Perriman to keep the UCF hopes alive. Two plays later, Storm Johnson carried the ball from the one, fumbled, and watched tackle Chris Martin recover the ball in the end zone to tie the game at 17.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tiger freshman Marquis Warford was crushed at the 12-yard line, fumbled the ball, and lay prone as UCF's Drico Johnson picked up the ball and ran into the end zone untouched. Fuente asked for a booth review, but the play was upheld, despite some talk about a helmet-to-helmet hit that could have been penalized. The score gave UCF a 24-17 lead with 1:56 to play.
Junior wideout Joe Craig replaced Warford on the next kickoff and proceeded to dash 97 yards for what could have been a game-tying touchdown. The play was nullified, though, by an illegal Tiger block that brought the ball back to the Memphis 25-yard line.
Lynch led the first two-minute drill of his college career in style, completing passes to Craft, Frazier, and Jones on a march that took the Tigers to the UCF 6-yard line with less than 45 seconds to play. But on a halfback option play, Hayes lofted a pass toward the right corner of the end zone, where it was intercepted by Plummer, your leading candidate for American Defensive Player of the Week (he also had a sack of Lynch, one of five times the Tiger quarterback was dropped).
"We can't let this linger," said Fuente. "It's life, and life isn't always easy." When asked about how he would handle such a crushing loss, Fuente responded, "When I got here, there weren't crushing losses. They were just crushed."
The coach was pleased that his defense held a potent offense to 17 points, despite losing junior cornerback Bobby McCain to a left-knee injury in the first half. "Our kids understand the scheme," he said, "and they're flying to the football. When you're half a step off, it glares at you against a team like [UCF]."
Lynch completed 20 of 38 passes for 279 yards. (Bortles was 17 of 36 for 160.) Linebacker Tank Jakes picked up the only sack of the game for Memphis, which came into the game leading the American with 13 for the season. Hayes led the ground game with 73 yards on 12 carries.
Lynch saluted the conquering team, all the while turning his eye to next week's challenge at Houston. "This was one of the most diverse defenses we'll face," he said. "We know we can win now. We just have to go out and do it, and not hurt ourselves. When I make a mistake, it's rough. But after you mess up, you have to shake it off."
Having come of age in the 1980s, I had a (now old) Scorpions tune playing in my head throughout the Tigers' beat-down of Arkansas State: "Blackout."
Dressed in black from neck to toe (their helmets were chrome), the Tigers thoroughly dominated a Red Wolves team that a year ago compiled 619 yards in a win at Jonesboro. The Memphis defense limited ASU to 255 yards this afternoon, while the Tiger offense piled up 505, no fewer than 329 of them on the ground. Senior Brandon Hayes (114 yards) and freshman Marquis Warford (173) became the first Tiger tandem to reach 100 yards rushing in five years. Warford's 16-yard scamper to complete the game's scoring late in the third quarter had press-box denizens bringing up a sacred name in these parts: DeAngelo Williams.
"I'm proud of the way we conducted ourselves," said Tiger coach Justin Fuente after the game. "I'm proud of the level of discipline we showed, our ability to bounce back when things didn't go our way [in the season's first two games]. It's only one victory. Our focus is to smile a little bit, then go get better." A week after committing 15 penalties in a two-point loss at Middle Tennessee, Memphis was called for only four infractions and suffered only one turnover, a Warford fumble after the outcome had been decided.
The Tigers received the opening kickoff and marched an efficient 77 yards (on seven plays), Hayes running the last six with less than three minutes having ticked off the clock. Sacks by Martin Ifedi and Terry Redden squeezed ASU's opening drive and set the tone for the rest of the game. Memphis tied a school record with seven sacks, two-and-a-half coming from Ifedi, who now has five-and-a-half for the season. (The Tiger record is 13 by Andre Arnold in 2000.) Ifedi had seven solo tackles for the game.
"Every time I looked up, [number] 97 was in the backfield," said Fuente. "I just focus on the man in front of me," added Ifedi. "Coach tells me, 'Nobody can block you but yourself.' As a defense, we have to come out and set the tone, every game. We take pride in playing with enthusiasm. Momentum is great whenever we get a three-and-out."
As they have since Fuente took over before the 2012 season, the Tigers gambled on fourth down throughout the game, twice losing possession within field-goal range, but also scoring on a six-yard pass from Paxton Lynch to Alan Cross (a touchdown that extended the Memphis lead to 14-0 midway through the first quarter). The Tigers were a combined seven for 17 on third and fourth downs (the Red Wolves were four for 17).
Warford found "big-chunk" yardage, averaging 15.7 yards on 11 carries, his longest jaunt being a 63-yarder that followed a Bobby McCain interception in the second quarter. "We were able to run it inside and outside," noted Fuente. "We haven't had those long runs in the past. It was nice."
"The offensive line opened a lot of holes for me today," said Warford. "They allowed me to do what I had to do. The coaches believed in me a lot, giving me the rock. The chunk plays let us be who we are [as an offense]. We have a lot of weapons. Coach Fuente calls the right plays, and we have to execute."
Lynch completed 17 of 26 passes for 176 yards to win his first game as the Tigers' starting quarterback. Yet another freshman, Sam Craft, scored his first college touchdown on a five-yard scamper with 5:25 to play before halftime.
The win allows the Tigers to enjoy a bye week as they prepare to host UCF on October 5th. The Knights have already beaten Penn State this season and have beaten Memphis every year since 2005.
Will the black uniforms be back? Fuente emphasized the program will not stray from the team colors of blue and gray. But ask a Tiger player what he thinks of the dark duds and you'll likely hear the same response Warford gave: "I love the black."
New theme song, I'm telling you: "Blackout."
The American Athletic Conference logos on the field were new. The Tiger stripes in the end zone — blue and black — were new. And the home team's chrome helmets were as new as they were shiny. Alas, this was a Memphis Tiger football season opener, and the final score was not new. The Duke Blue Devils scored a pair of touchdowns inside the game's final ten minutes to break a tie and give the Tiger program its ninth consecutive opening-game loss. A crowd of 44,237 at the Liberty Bowl — the largest for a Tiger game since the 2009 opener — watched a Memphis team much improved from the one that fell at Duke last season (38-14) but not quite ready to finish off a Blue Devil team (now 2-0) growing under coach David Cutcliffe.
"I'm not happy," said Tiger coach Justin Fuente after the game. "Just playing a team well — and losing — is not what we're shooting for. But I'm not frustrated either. That's the wrong word. There are a lot of teaching points we have to make. A lot of growing up we have to do. As a program, we have to learn how to finish against a good team."
Duke opened the scoring early when quarterback Anthony Boone pranced into the end zone from 23 yards just 3:15 after the opening kickoff. (Memphis went three-and-out on the opening possession of the game.) Tiger punter Tom Hornsey "flipped the field," as they say, by drilling a 79-yard punt — the second longest in the history of Memphis football — after another three-and-out. Senior tailback Brandon Hayes appeared to score on a 30-yard touchdown that would have tied the game late in the first quarter, only to be called for stepping out of bounds (untouched) at the 18-yard-line. The Tigers failed to convert on fourth-and-one and trailed 7-0 after the first period.
Junior cornerback Bobby McCain intercepted a deep Boone pass and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter to tie the game at 7. Boone was forced to leave the game midway through the second quarter with what was described as "an upper-body injury." His replacement, Brandon Connette, proved integral to the Duke attack, completing 14 of 21 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
Duke regained the lead on an 8-yard run by Juwan Thompson just over five minutes into the second half. With the Tigers at the Duke 24 early in the fourth quarter, freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch fumbled on fourth-and-short, returning the ball to the Blue Devils with the score still 14-7. Lynch responded on the next Memphis possession, though, completing a 45-yard pass to sophomore wideout Tevin Jones for the Tigers' biggest offensive strike of the day. Freshman Sam Craft followed the Jones reception with a 14-yard run around left end after a double reverse, then senior tailback Jai Steib carried the ball up the middle for an 11-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14 with 11:38 to play.
Connette connected with junior Jamison Crowder for deep passes on each of the next two Duke possessions, both leading to touchdowns: a 22-yard reception by Issac Blakeney and a 12-yard reception by Brandon Braxton.
"Against good teams, you can't make little mistakes," said Fuente. The coach seemed generally pleased by the play of Lynch in his first college game, but stressed the importance of protecting the football, especially on short yardage downs, plays he said "you have to make." Lynch completed 14 of 24 passes for 148 yards. Lynch acknowledged some nerves early in the game, noting it was the largest crowd he'd ever played before. But he added that he felt comfortable and in command as the game developed.
"I want to play perfect," said the Florida native, who redshirted last season behind Jacob Karam. "But I didn't, so I don't think I played well."
As they did a year ago, the Blue Devils ran considerably more plays than the Tigers (82 to 57) and won despite being sloppy with the ball (three turnovers). The Memphis ground game wasn't strong enough to sustain drives (89 yards on 33 carries). Duke converted 10 of 18 plays on third down, while the Tigers were but two for 13.
In addition to his interception, McCain recovered a fumble to lead the Tiger defense. Junior end Martin Ifedi added two sacks and three tackles for lost yardage.
Crowder stood out among the Blue Devils, catching 11 passes for 140 yards.
The Tigers play their first road game of the season next week in Murfreesboro, where they'll face a Middle Tennessee team that's won four of the last five meetings between the schools.
The lasting impression from today's loss may be that crowd, a swollen mass of blue willing to sit in 93-degree heat at kickoff to cheer a team coming off a 4-8 season. "I want to thank everyone for coming out," said Fuente. "Keep coming out, because we're going to get better."
Not since 2003 — when they played in The Pyramid — had the Memphis Tigers' drawn as large a crowd (of players) for Senior Day as they did in today's regular-season finale at FedExForum. The pregame ceremony stirred 18,289 Tiger fans as it always does, and three of those seniors — Charles Holt, Stan Simpson, and Ferrakohn Hall — received a farewell ovation unlike any they'll ever experience again. For the fourth senior, though, it must have seemed like your average home game . . . just turned up a notch.
"It was the perfect day for me," said that senior, forward D.J. Stephens. "To have all four of us on the court near the end of the game, and getting the win."
The Tigers allowed an overmatched UAB team within a single point (45-44) before erupting for 41 points in a 12-minute span to secure their 27th win of the season and complete a 16-game whitewashing of Conference USA. The win ends the 18th and final regular season for Memphis as members of C-USA. They'll travel to Tulsa next week for the league tournament, opening with a quarterfinal game on Thursday.
"To go 16-0 in league play is special," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after his 102nd win as Memphis coach. "You don't take that for granted. Tremendous win. And the way the season started, with lots of darts and arrows being thrown at us. You appreciate this; it isn't a birthright. We have tremendous young men, academically, socially, and athletically."
Junior guard Joe Jackson did all he could to steal the spotlight from Stephens, falling but a rebound shy of the program's fourth triple-double. Teammate Chris Crawford (who scored a game-high 20 points) pointed out that Jackson wasn't all that far from a quadruple-double: 17 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds, and six steals. "Joe was awesome, with a capital A," said Pastner. "He dominated on 50-50 balls today, and that's what this team is about."
Rounding out the guard-dominated performance for Memphis was junior Geron Johnson with 19 points, four assists, and three steals. As a team, the Tigers picked up 22 assists on the 30 field goals they converted, a percentage that keeps the head coach smiling.
As for Stephens, the Texas native finished one of the most unlikely seasons in Memphis history by scoring 13 points (on five of six shooting) and grabbing eight rebounds and three steals. After the final buzzer, Stephens delivered a parting kiss . . . to the rim on his team's side of the floor.
"Everybody kept telling me to kiss the tiger [logo at midcourt], but that's been done before," said Stephens. "A couple of days ago, Shaq [Goodwin] jumped to see how high his head could get. I went right after him, and when I jumped, I actually looked down at the rim a bit. Man, that was kind of cool. I just wanted to be remembered for something different."
The win ends an annual series between Memphis and UAB that dates back to the 1990-91 season, a series the Tigers have dominated (35-10), but one special to fans of both programs for the connection to the late Hall of Fame coach, Gene Bartow. Did the meaning of the game — and his unique senior moment — make for an emotional afternoon for Stephens?
"I was actually more happy than anything," said Stephens. "To be able to walk out there with the people who brought me into the world, and my girlfriend . . . my future wife. She's pregnant, so in a way she walked out there with our child. For them to be with me in a moment like that, it means a lot."
The Tigers won their second straight Conference USA regular-season championship Saturday with a rather thorough dismantling of the league's second-best team. A midcourt steal followed by a breakaway dunk by junior guard Geron Johnson spurred an 18-3 run to end the first half, giving Memphis a 46-30 lead. Southern Miss would get no closer than 12 the rest of the way as the 21st-ranked Tigers secured their 18th consecutive win and improved to 24-3 on the season.
"To win a conference championship over a two-and-a-half-month period . . . that's not easy to do," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after the game. "Especially when you're picked to win it, and you're getting everyone's best shot. To fight through all the negativity back in November, to stay together and get to this point is a tremendous testament of character to these young men."
Memphis fans likely saw the last of a longtime Tiger rival as Southern Miss will remain in C-USA when the U of M moves to the Big East next season. The victory was the 40th for Memphis in 48 games against the Eagles here in the Bluff City.
Senior guard Dwayne Davis did all he could to keep things tight, scoring 18 points in the first half and 28 for the game. His efforts, though, were thwarted by a Tiger team that shared the ball exquisitely with 25 assists on 29 field goals. It was the fifth time in seven games Memphis has accumulated at least 20 assists. Johnson had seven helpers, Shaq Goodwin five, and Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford four each.
"We're an unselfish team, spreading the ball around to everybody," said Jackson, who added 15 points to his line. "We feed off each other. When you've got four or five guys who can pass, shoot, and dribble, it makes the game easy. We won a conference championship last year, but it's so different. We pay attention to detail better than we did last year. We're more unselfish. There are good teams and bad teams in the conference; Southern Miss is a good one. But we've got to treat everyone like they're good."
Junior guard Chris Crawford heated up late in the first half, hitting four three-pointers to help fuel the burst before halftime. He finished with five treys (tying a career high) and scored 19 points. D.J. Stephens scored 16 points (three more dunks) and blocked five shots. Goodwin added 19 points, his most since the December 5th win over Ohio.
"Two of our goals before the season were a conference championship and an NCAA championship," said Goodwin. "We got one of them, so let's go on to the next. We know we have a team full of scorers, but we have to play together. This is more than basketball. We decided to look at this as something bigger, like life. I'm from out of town, so these are basically my brothers. Every time we go out there, we say 'Play for your brother next to you.' "
Pastner continues to relish the winning streak, the fifth-longest in the proud history of the program. "It shows you how great this program is, so much bigger than any coach or player," he said. "We've got 18 wins in a row. For most teams, that would be the longest in the history of the program. Here, it's fifth. That's crazy. It shows you how great the tradition is here. You're witnessing some beautiful basketball."
The Tigers won't return to FedExForum until March 9th (Senior Day). They travel to Cincinnati for a rare February nonconference tilt against Xavier on Tuesday. They'll then travel to UCF and UTEP before returning home.
NOTE: Pastner said there is a slight chance junior guard Antonio Barton — sidelined with a broken foot — could return for the March 9th game against UAB. More likely, he'll be in uniform when the Tigers play their first game at the C-USA tournament on March 14th.