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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Tigers 75, Connecticut 72

Posted By on Thu, Feb 19, 2015 at 11:38 PM

The Tigers brought some warmth — at least emotionally — to a city much in need Thursday night with a win over the defending national champions at FedExForum, the team's first home win over a club not named Jacksonville State in more than three weeks. Sophomore forward Austin Nichols, still nursing an injured right ankle, returned two games ahead of schedule to score 16 points, grab eight rebounds, and block seven shots in 38 minutes of action.

The Tigers allowed a 14-point second-half lead to shrink to two with 10 seconds to play. Freshman guard Markel Crawford made one of two free throws before Husky forward Daniel Hamilton missed a three-point attempt as the buzzer sounded. Crawford had a stellar game with 14 points, two rim-rattling dunks, and a defensive effort that held UConn star Ryan Boatright to seven points and only six field-goal attempts.

Kedren Johnson finds his man.

The win is the Tigers' third in two seasons over a defending national champ, Memphis having beaten Louisville twice in 2013-14. The program now sports an alltime record of 8-3 against title-holders, Thursday's win being just the second such victory over a team other than archrival Louisville. (Memphis beat Loyola-Illinois in 1964.)

"It was our funnest win, for sure," said Tiger guard Kedren Johnson, who played 38 minutes, scored a season-high 21 points, and delivered six assists. "It's a game of runs. We knew they were gonna make a push toward the end. You just gotta keep swinging till the final buzzer." Johnson described the defensive effort against Boatright as critical. "We knew how electric he was, the caliber player he is. It was all five of us keeping an eye on him, trying not to let him get loose."

Spurred by 13 points from Nichols over the game's first 16 minutes, the Tigers led throughout the first half. Crawford's first dunk put Memphis up 23-10 and a Johnson trey gave the U of M a 32-20 lead with 5:30 to play before halftime. The Tigers outscored UConn 11-5 over the first five minutes of the second half and seemed to be cruising before the Huskies countered with an 8-0 run sparked by a Hamilton three-pointer.

Nichols struggled offensively in the second half (one for ten from the field) and Shaq Goodwin was limited by foul trouble (he finished with eight points, five rebounds, five assists, and four blocks in 25 minutes). But Crawford got loose for another dunk inside the final minute and Johnson hit a pair of free throws with 17 seconds remaining to help the Tigers (16-10) move a game ahead of UConn (14-11) in the American Athletic Conference standings. The teams are battling for a coveted bye in the first round of next month's AAC tourney.

The Huskies clearly missed last year's AAC Player of the Year, Shabazz Napier. And the Tigers welcomed the return of a contender for this year's award. "To be honest, I knew I was gonna play three days ago," said Nichols. "I didn't want it to get out, UConn find out, and set their game plan up. But I felt confident about it. I told Coach [Josh Pastner] I was ready to go.

"I want to give all the credit to my teammates. I missed a lot of shots tonight, but they have the confidence in me to keep shooting. I try to be the aggressor when I'm out there. I'm proud of the guys tonight. We gotta protect home court. We went out there with confidence and got a win."

Sophomore guard Avery Woodson played a key supporting role for Memphis with 11 points that included three field goals from beyond the three-point arc. Pastner tightened his rotation, the Tiger bench contributing a total of 31 game minutes. Reserves took a total of three shots (one make, by Trahson Burrell).

Next for the Tigers is a road game Sunday in Orlando against a UCF team they beat by 20 points in mid-January at FedExForum. They're back at home on February 26th when SMU comes to town.

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