Sunday, December 31, 2017

#21 Cincinnati 82, Tigers 48

Posted By on Sun, Dec 31, 2017 at 5:02 PM

The ball dropped a few hours early on a new year of American Athletic Conference play for the Memphis Tigers. And the 21st-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats provided a 40-minute measure of the gap Memphis must close before it can again be considered a contender for the AAC title. Gary Clark scored 13 points and pulled down 10 rebounds to lead the Bearcats, and Clark is merely one of three Cincinnati starters named second-team all-conference in the preseason coaches poll (along with Kyle Washington and Jacob Evans).
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Cincinnati secured the win by halftime with a lead of 35-16. The margin expanded to 30 points merely four minutes into the second half. The Bearcats shot 52 percent from the field (and hit 9 of 18 three-point attempts) while Memphis was limited to 32 percent and missed 18 of 22 long-distance shots.

Kareem Brewton led the Tigers with 17 points off the bench. Point guard Jeremiah Martin was limited to eight points, less than half his average entering the contest. Mike Parks was the only other Tiger in double-figure scoring (10).

The loss drops Memphis to 9-5 on the season and gives the Tigers their first losing streak of the winter. Cincinnati improves to 12-2. (The game was played in Newport, Kentucky, as Cincinnati's home arena undergoes significant renovations.)

The Tigers travel to Orlando to face UCF on Wednesday before returning to FedExForum next Saturday to host Tulsa.


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Saturday, December 30, 2017

AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Iowa State 21, #19 Tigers 20

Posted By on Sat, Dec 30, 2017 at 5:41 PM

One-point losses torture. Today's defeat in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl — by that most narrow of margins — will leave a scar for certain Tigers, those like Riley Ferguson, Anthony Miller, Genard Avery, and Gabe Kuhn, who have now each played their final game in blue and gray. Playing before a sellout crowd of 57,266 on a chilly, overcast day in the Mid-South, Iowa State capitalized once more than did the home team, a third-quarter touchdown reception by game MVP Allen Lazard providing the winning point total. Lazard pulled down the catch — his 10th, tying the record for the bowl game — as he fell down behind a trio of Memphis defenders, his backside barely still in play.
Riley Ferguson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

Lazard's game-winner came moments after Memphis linebacker Curtis Akins intercepted a Kyle Kempt pass, a turnover that seemed to preserve a 17-14 Tiger lead. But Avery — voted the Tigers' Most Outstanding Defensive Player — was penalized for roughing Kempt on the play. (The senior linebacker didn't leave his feet on the contact that knocked the Cyclone quarterback to the turf.) "I was just playing my game," said Avery during the postgame press conference. "I felt like it was a bad call."

The third 10-win season in Memphis history ends, ironically, on a two-game losing streak, the team's final record 10-3. Iowa State finishes 8-5.

"It was among our tougher challenges," said Cyclone coach Matt Campbell. "To come in here and win a game against a team that's very familiar with their environment. That's one thing that makes a bowl game a little different: usually it's at a neutral site. But that's part of the uniqueness of the game this year. Our guys were all for it. I think it adds to the lore of the win for this football team."

Trailing by one (21-20) with just over four minutes left in the game, Memphis forced the first fumbled turnover all season by the Cyclones, Iowa State tailback David Montgomery losing the ball as he fell into the end zone. (The play was confirmed after a lengthy review that left the blue side of the stadium elated and the red enraged.) But The Tigers' final drive of the game stalled at midfield, Ferguson missing his fourth-down target (senior receiver Phil Mayhue) before Memphis could get within field-goal range for kicker Riley Patterson.

"[Coach Campbell] came into the huddle and told us that he hoped the call went against us," said Cylcone linebacker Joel Lanning. "He wanted us to show people that we've learned [through adversity]. We just keep playing. Memphis is a great team, and they drove down on us pretty quick. We had to cover everything. Guys made great plays there at the end."
Mike Norvell - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

"We weren't able to establish our running game today," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell. "And that allowed them to tee off on us a little bit." The Tigers allowed Ferguson to be sacked six times after allowing a total of 15 sacks over the team's first 12 games. The U of M's top rusher this season, Darrell Henderson, missed the game with a leg injury. Patrick Taylor had a pair of 20-yard runs on a drive that culminated in a field goal late in the third quarter, the final points of the ball game.

"It's been a heckuva two years," said Ferguson, voted the Tigers' Most Outstanding Offensive Player. "I've been truly blessed to play for the University of Memphis. I love my brothers, my coaches, this program. It's not the way we wanted to end it, but this is a special place, no matter what." In passing for 286 yards, Ferguson became the first Tiger quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards in a single season. His two touchdown passes Saturday set a new U of M single-season mark of 38 for the year.

Ferguson's first touchdown connection came on a screen to senior Anthony Miller, his record-breaking partner in crime. The 40th touchdown of Miller's Tiger career tied the score at 7 midway through the first quarter. (Among former Tigers, only DeAngelo Williams reached the end zone more often.) Miller was generally held in check by the Cyclone defense but finishes his senior season with new records for receptions (96) and yardage (1,462), eclipsing the standards he set in 2016.

Memphis took the lead on its first possession of the second half. Ferguson completed a four-play, 66-yard drive with a 36-yard completion to Mayhue, one the receiver signed with a brilliant juke around two Cyclone defenders. That 21-17 lead held until the Lazard game-winner. No points were scored in the fourth quarter.

One Tiger possession late in the first quarter will linger in the minds of those who ponder when, exactly, a game tilts. With the game knotted at seven points, Ferguson appeared to hit his target for a go-ahead touchdown, only for the play to be negated by an illegal-player-downfield penalty. When Riley Patterson missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt, the possession proved empty. And in one-point games, empty possessions can prove fatal.

In being held to 20 points, Memphis fell eight points shy of the first 600-point season in program history. The Tiger offense ran only 59 plays, compared with 80 for the Cyclones. The Tigers were only 3 for 12 on third-down conversions. In a one-point game, the heavy advantage Iowa State enjoyed in time of possession — 37:49 to 22:11 for Memphis — may be, for posterity's sake, the decisive factor.

"All the pieces are in place to continue to grow," said Norvell, now armed with a five-year contract extension after putting up a record of 18-8 over his first two seasons in Memphis.
"The commitment from our university, from the young men in our program, is one of the highest standards. We have to learn from these experiences. The highs, the lows. That's all part of it. These kids are going to be hungry. We have a great foundation."

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

LSU 71, Memphis 61

Posted By on Thu, Dec 28, 2017 at 10:17 PM

Memphis dropped its final nonconference game of the season Thursday night, falling to LSU at FedExForum. Freshman guard Tremont Waters led the Bayou Bengals with 18 points. The loss is the Memphis Tigers' first at home this season and drops their overall record to 9-4, while LSU improves to 9-3.
Tubby Smith - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

Junior forward Kyvon Davenport led Memphis with 17 points. The score was tied at halftime (36-36) after eight lead changes over the first 20 minutes.

The loss will leave Memphis with an 0-3 mark against teams from "Power 5" conferences, the Tigers having also dropped games against Alabama and Louisville.

American Athletic Conference play will open for Memphis Sunday when the Tigers visit Cincinnati. Tipoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. (The next home game for the U of M will be January 6th when Tulsa comes to town.)

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Tigers 83, Loyola (MD) 71

Posted By on Sat, Dec 23, 2017 at 2:26 PM

"We're certainly glad to get this one over with."

Memphis coach Tubby Smith relishes every victory, but not so much losses for his son, G.G. The conflicting emotions surged Saturday at FedExForum when, for the second time in his 27-year career, Smith led a team against one coached by G.G. The Tigers endured yet another poor start — they trailed by 12 points midway through the first half — and finished the game on a 19-6 tear after Loyola took a 65-64 lead with 4:53 left to play. The win improves the Tiger record to 9-3 and gives Memphis its first 9-0 start to a home schedule since the Final Four season of 2007-08.
Father embraces son.
  • Father embraces son.

"I thought [G.G.] did a fantastic job today," said the elder Smith, "getting his kids to play hard, play the right way, play with intensity. We had a tough time guarding them. We hunkered down and guarded the three better than we have all year long. That was the difference in the ball game: our defensive intensity."

With senior forward Jimario Rivers absent for a second straight game — he continues to suffer headaches a week after a concussion in the Louisville game — junior Raynere Thornton and freshman David Nickelberry filled minutes capably, Thornton putting up the team's third double-double (16 points and 11 rebounds) of the season.

Reserve guard Malik Rhodes converted a three-point play to regain the lead for Memphis (67-65) with 4:46 left in the game. Nickelberry then found Thornton inside and followed with his own layup after a steal by Jeremiah Martin to seal the win. Nickelberry finished with a season-high 10 points, six rebounds, and five assists in 30 minutes. Martin tied his career high with 26 points (the third time he's scored that amount this season), hitting three of six three-point attempts and nine of 12 free throws. Junior forward Kyvon Davenport contributed 14 points in 36 minutes of action.

"[Coach Smith] didn't say it exactly, but we got the message, the way his eyes were," said Martin. "He didn't want to lose to his son." As for the growing impact made by Nickelberry, Martin saw it coming. "I'm harder on David, because I know what he's capable of. Freshman year, there's not a lot that comes your way like it did in high school."

"I knew I needed to  play a bigger role for this team," added Nickelberry.

"We've worked really hard on [Nickelberry] being under control," said Tubby Smith. "That's what he does best: pass the ball. And learning to defend; he's grown in that area. He can see over people. I'm proud of him."

Big picture, Smith sees his team developing, particularly on the defensive end, with conference play looming (December 31st). "We took a step back in rebounding," Smith acknowledged. "They outrebounded us [35-31]. We've gotten better defensively. The game's changed; you can't be [too] physical. We've recruited some big guys and think we can bang inside. But the best thing about this team is that it's adapting. It's very versatile. We have the ability to overcome adversity. That's what I'm impressed with the most about this team."

The Tigers shot 53 percent for the game and held the Greyhounds to 23 percent (5 for 22) from three-point range. Chuck Champion led Loyola (now 2-9) with 16 points, one of five Greyhounds in double figures on the scoreboard.

The Tigers return to FedExForum next Thursday for their final nonconference game of the season. Tipoff against LSU is scheduled for 8 p.m.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Tigers 70, Siena 66

Posted By on Wed, Dec 20, 2017 at 10:46 PM

Let's call it a pattern.

The Tigers improved their home record to a spotless 8-0 Wednesday night with their victory over the Saints of Siena. But for the fifth time at FedExForum, Memphis won after trailing at halftime by at least five points. Junior forward Raynere Thornton personified the win, getting his first start of the season in place of senior forward Jimario Rivers (who is suffering concussion symptoms after a head injury Saturday against Louisville). Thornton was a nonfactor in the first half, failing to so much as get off a shot. But after halftime, the Georgia native scored 13 points (3 of 4 from the field and 6 of 10 from the foul line). An eight-point Tiger deficit swung toward a four-point Tiger win.
Tubby Smith - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

"No one wants to be in this situation," said Tiger coach Tubby Smith, now accustomed to his team's rocky starts. "We don't coach to keep the game close."

When asked what made the difference in his second half, Thornton seemed to deliver a half-joke: "Probably the baby powder. I couldn't hold on to the ball in the first half."

Freshman guard Jordan Horn — who entered the game averaging 2.6 points per game — came off the Siena bench and hit four of five three-point attempts in the first half to spearhead the Saints' early march. He finished the contest eight of 12 from long distance and scored a game-high 24 points in 23 minutes.

The Saints became the sixth Tiger opponent this season to make at least 10 three-pointers, connecting on 14 of 30. "We're not forcing people to put [the ball] on the floor," said Smith. "Thank goodness we had Kyvon Davenport back there protecting the basket." Davenport blocked four shots and scored 16 points for Memphis, his 10th game of the season with at least 10 in the scoring column. The junior's dunk and ensuing free throw gave the Tigers a 65-62 lead with 2:19 left in the game. His two free throws with 17 seconds left clinched the victory after Horn had pulled the Saints within a point (67-66) with his final trey of the game.

"It was a relief to get this win," said Smith. "Jordan Horn was unconscious tonight. He went to my basketball camp in Minnesota. I did too good a job of teaching him how to shoot."

Smith was pleased with Thornton's contribution, as well as freshman David Nickelberry's off the bench (seven points and six rebounds in 20 minutes). Junior point guard Jeremiah Martin tied Davenport with a team-high 16 points and Kareem Brewton scored 13 in 30 minutes off the bench.

"We were coming off a loss at Louisville, where we played bad," noted Smith. "Maybe they thought they played good. That's the challenge. We did some things well in New York [against the Cardinals], but we did some things poorly, and they showed up again today."

While the Tigers struggled to guard the perimeter, they attacked the rim offensively, getting to the free throw line for 37 shots (they made 26). Siena, on the contrary, only took eight free throws (and made six). Smith insists this team will succeed only if it plays "inside out," as perimeter shooting threats are a scarcity on the Tiger roster.

Now 8-3, Memphis will host Loyola-Maryland Saturday, with tipoff scheduled for 11 a.m.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Louisville 81, Tigers 72

Posted By on Sat, Dec 16, 2017 at 1:17 PM

It may not have been Keith Lee against Milt Wagner, but it was Memphis and Louisville. In Madison Square Garden, no less.
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Playing their third of four games in the Gotham Classic, the Tigers battled gallantly against a Cardinal team forecast to be among the nation's top 20 before Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino was fired under a cloud of scandal. Junior point guard Jeremiah Martin put Memphis up (40-38) with a driving layup to open the second half, but the Cardinals simply had too much Deng Adel and Anas Mahmoud. A pair of Adel three-pointers keyed a 17-2 run that allowed Louisville to seize control and the seven-foot Mahmoud blocked seven shots, outplaying the undersized Tiger frontcourt by himself.

A Martin jumper closed the margin to four points (60-56) with just over eight minutes to play, but Louisville answered with a 9-0 run that put the game out of reach. The Cardinals improve to 8-2 with the win while Memphis falls to 7-3. This was Louisville's 54th win over a 90-game series with Memphis that dates back to the 1948-49 season. (No future games are currently scheduled between the rivals.)

Quentin Snider led the Cardinals with 18 points while Adel added 15 (all via three-pointer) and V.J. King 16. Martin paced the Tigers with 26 points while Kyvon Davenport added 12 points and seven rebounds. Kareem Brewton scored nine points for Memphis and Mike Parks eight, but neither player was effective in the second half.

The Tigers' highlight of the game came just before halftime, when senior Jimario Rivers slammed home a one-handed dunk on a lob from Brewton to tie the game at 38. It won't otherwise be a game for the Rivers highlight film: the forward was not credited with a rebound.

Louisville shot 56 percent from three-point range, hitting 14 of 25 long-range attempts. The Tigers only hit four of 11 three-pointers and shot 45 percent overall.

Memphis returns to FedExForum Wednesday and will host Siena in its fifth of seven home games in December.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tigers 67, Albany 58

Posted By on Tue, Dec 12, 2017 at 11:32 PM

Eight games into his first season with the Tigers, it was easy to forget that Kareem Brewton was a juco All-America last season. The junior transfer entered Tuesday night's game at FedExForum averaging merely 7.1 points per game (despite starting seven games and averaging 24.6 minutes). He had taken 26 shots from beyond the three-point line . . . and made three.

Brewton made all three of his long-distance attempts against Albany, connected on eight of 11 shots from the field overall, and led Memphis with 19 points in 17 minutes off the bench to help the Tigers improve to 7-2 on the season and a perfect 7-0 on their home floor. The victory is the Tigers' second in a four-game series they'll play as part of the Gotham Classic, their next game being Saturday in Madison Square Garden against arch-rival Louisville.
Jimario Rivers - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jimario Rivers

"The coaches have been telling me to get my palm off the ball [on my shot]," said Brewton. "Once I make the first shot, I feel like I can make every single one."

Neither team shot well to open the game, but the Tigers built a 10-point lead (25-15) before a late push by the Great Danes cut the margin to seven (29-22) at halftime. Albany tied the score at 45 midway through the second half, but a pair of dunks — the first by junior Raynere Thornton and the second by junior guard Jeremiah Martin following a steal — gave the Tigers a five-point cushion they would retain for the balance of the game. The loss is only the second of the season for Albany, now 10-2.

"Jamal [Johnson] started in [Brewton's] place the other night, but he didn't hang his head," noted Tiger coach Tubby Smith. "He came out in practice and worked to improve his shot. I was really impressed with his threes. That gave him a lot of confidence, and gave us a lot of confidence. The bench was outstanding." The Tiger reserves scored a combined 31 points against merely five by Albany's bench.

Martin scored 13 points and had four assists and five steals in 37 minutes of action. He was partly responsible for keeping Albany sharpshooter Joe Cremo under wraps (16 points on five-of-14 shooting). Senior forward Jimario Rivers added 11 points. Junior Kyvon Davenport was held under ten points (5) for the first time this season, though he pulled down a team-high seven rebounds.

The Tigers held the Great Danes to 34.4 percent shooting for the game and blocked 11 shots, four of them by Davenport.

While Memphis-Louisville doesn't hold the weight — locally, let alone nationally — it did 30 years ago, Saturday's game will be the biggest of the Tigers' nonconference schedule and will test weaknesses. "We can't turn the ball over like we did tonight [12]," stressed Smith, "and we have to be more efficient at both ends of the court. It will be a real test for us, to see how much we've improved." The Tigers and Cardinals last played in the 2013-14 season, the lone year they spent together as members of the American Athletic Conference. Memphis won both games that season, but Louisville owns the historic edge with a 53-36 advantage over the teams' 89 games.

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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Tigers 90, Bryant 72

Posted By on Sat, Dec 9, 2017 at 3:13 PM

A Memphis Tiger team desperate for a consistent shooter inserted Jamal Johnson into the starting lineup Saturday afternoon and the freshman from Birmingham made the case for regular membership in that quintet. Johnson hit six of 11 attempts from three-point range, including a buzzer-beater as he fell out of bounds at the end of the first half to help the Tigers improve to 6-2 and stay undefeated (6-0) at FedExForum. The game was the first of four Memphis will play in the cross-regional Gotham Classic. (The only game to actually be played in New York City will be next Saturday's tilt with Louisville.)
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Johnson played a game-high 33 minutes and was supported by junior point guard Jeremiah Martin, who also hit six three-pointers (in seven attempts) and led the Tigers with 24 points (two shy of his career high) and seven assists (with only one turnover). Martin wasn't so much impressed with Johnson's point total (18) as he was with out easy he made the transition from bench to starter. "We didn't know [Johnson] was going to be in the lineup," said Martin after the game. "He was excited. I was messing with him during pregame, to see if he was nervous. I was glad to see him look so comfortable."

The Tigers, for a change, started the game with a strong push, taking a 15-6 lead before the Bulldogs closed the margin and tied the score at 20 midway through the first half. The lead exchanged hands a few times before the Tigers began a 22-0 run with less than five minutes to play before halftime. Johnson keyed the run with three treys, including the buzzer-beater and the Tigers' first two field goals after the break. The lead grew to 21 points in the first two minutes of the second half and Bryant never again closed within 10.

"We shot the ball well today," noted Tiger coach Tubby Smith. "That's something we haven't been doing. We changed the lineup, and Jamal was a big boost for us. We had a lot more assists [26] than turnovers [16] and that was huge. We found Mike Parks in transition some, and we need our big guys to play better inside for us."

Junior forward Kyvon Davenport scored 15 points, giving the juco transfer eight straight games in double figures (matched only by Martin among his teammates). Senior forward Jimario Rivers added 11 points and a team-high six rebounds.

The loss drops Bryant to 1-9 for the season.

With five more games before the start of conference play, Smith suggested a significant step may have been taken toward stabilizing the Tigers' rotation of players. "[Jamal] is a guy who can make shots when he's open," said Smith. "But he got into the lineup not just because of his shooting. His defense is solid; he doesn't take a lot of chances. Fundamentally sound. He's getting stronger. Going forward, I think this is something that will inspire him."

The Tigers will next host Albany on Tuesday night (tip-off at 8 p.m.). The Great Danes beat  Bryant, 84-68, on December 6th.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tigers 65, Samford 64

Posted By on Tue, Dec 5, 2017 at 10:51 PM

Escapability.

Whatever qualities this new band of Tigers is learning about itself, an ability to leave FedExForum with a win despite 40 minutes (or more) of shaky play seems to be prominent. Three days after sneaking by Mercer by two points via two overtime periods, Memphis erased a four-point deficit in the game's final 16 seconds to beat the Samford Bulldogs. Freshman guard Jamal Johnson — limited to 17 minutes of playing time by foul trouble — grabbed a rebound off a Jimario Rivers miss, connected on a leaner in the lane to tie the game at 64, and drew a foul (against the Bulldogs' Eric Adams). With 2.5 seconds left on the clock, Johnson hit the free throw to improve the Tigers' record to 5-2.

"He was in the right place at the right time," said junior guard Jeremiah Martin in as appropriate usage of a worn cliche as we'll hear all season. "He stepped up and made a great play."
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

Martin himself hit a driving layup through stationary Bulldog traffic with 10.8 seconds left to pull the Tigers within two points (64-62). Junior forward Raynere Thornton forced a turnover on the ensuing inbounds play that set up Johnson's heroics.

The comeback erased what would have been a star showing from Samford guard Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, a native of nearby Covington. Denzel-Dyson scored five straight points (two field goals and a free throws) on three consecutive possessions — aided by two Memphis turnovers — to give the Bulldogs that 64-60 lead. The senior finished the game with 17 points, tied with Tiger junior Kyvon Davenport for most in the contest.

Memphis improved to 5-0 at home this season despite the Bulldogs leading for thirty minutes and trailing at halftime (this time by nine points) for the sixth time in seven games. The Tigers won despite Rivers going scoreless in the first half (he scored nine points after halftime). They won despite committing more turnovers 16 than they handed out assists (14). Martin struggled from the floor (4 for 15) but hit five of six free throws, every one critical to the final margin.

"It's early," said Martin after the game. "There's a lot of figuring out going on. We need to come out for the next game and play as hard as we did in the last five minutes tonight."

Tiger coach Tubby Smith was pleased with the victory, but doesn't like the developing trend of falling behind, hoping for that escapability. "We had a lot of energy at shootaround," he emphasized. "Very upbeat. You can see by the turnovers, we're not flowing. We've been trying a lot of different things, a lot of different lineups. Tonight was tough because we got into foul trouble, particularly Kareem [Brewton] and Jamal. But Malik [Rhodes] came in and did some good things for us."

Smith's 581st career win came at the expense of Samford coach Scott Padgett, who played for Smith with the 1997-87 national champion Kentucky Wildcats. The Bulldogs fall to 2-7 with the loss and haven't won away from home yet this season (0-6).

"They're still getting to know each other," acknowledged Smith. "But I love the way they compete. And they're pretty resilient."

NOTE: In researching this date in Tiger history, Tiger radio analyst Matt Dillon discovered a jewel of a stat line. On December 5th, 1978, James Bradley put up the first (now-known) triple double in Memphis history: 14 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists against Western Kentucky. Until Dillon unearthed that box score, Penny Hardaway (twice) and Antonio Anderson were thought to be the only Tigers to register triple doubles.


Monday, December 4, 2017

Tigers Go Backyard Bowling

Posted By on Mon, Dec 4, 2017 at 9:46 AM

The event we now know as the AutoZone Liberty Bowl has been played every December since 1959, the first six years in Philadelphia and, since 1965, at the stadium here in Memphis that shares its name. Only seven college bowl games have a longer history. The University of Memphis has fielded a football team since 1912, the last 53 years at that very same Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, many of those seasons forgettable, a precious few — like 2017 — bursting with happy memories. For the first time, come December 30th, these two Bluff City gridiron institutions will meet as one. If you can numb the pain from last Saturday in Orlando, this is a perfect marriage.
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About that pain. If you have a rooting interest in the Tigers, there's no way to shake the disappointment of their 62-55(!) loss to UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship. Had the Knights won decisively, as they did in the teams' first confrontation on September 30th, the Tiger fan base takes a deep breath, licks the wound, and breaks out the bowl-game t-shirts, wherever their 19th-ranked team happens to land. But the Knights did not win decisively. Memphis came up one field goal (albeit from 51 yards) short of the AAC title and a berth in the Peach Bowl, one of the New Year's Six. The Tigers had a chance in overtime to secure that same prize but couldn't stop UCF on its first (or second) offensive possession. That close to playing in one of the six most prestigious postseason games in college football. Much will have to happen for the program to get such a chance again.

That loss means a second-tier bowl for the Tigers, at least in harsh, clinical terms. The New Year's Six is first tier, the two national semifinals (this year the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl) virtually beyond the reach of "Group of Five" programs like Memphis. But remember, we now have 40 bowl games. Second tier? That beats the hell out of a third-tier bowl (say, the Alamo Bowl). For that matter, we can now classify bowl games as fourth-tier (Music City, Pinstripe) or even fifth-tier (Camellia Bowl? New Mexico Bowl?). The 2017 Liberty Bowl will be the most prestigious postseason game Memphis has ever played, and by a considerable margin.

Consider: The Tigers have played in ten bowl games, and only one of them had existed as many as ten years when Memphis appeared in the game. Remember the 1956 Burley Bowl? Of course you don't. First played in 1945, that game between Memphis State College and East Tennessee State (won by the Tigers) was the last Burley Bowl ever played. The 1971 Pasadena Bowl? For twenty years, that event was called "the Junior Rose Bowl." Because it was played between junior college programs until 1967. The Tigers played in the third New Orleans Bowl (2003), the sixth GMAC Bowl (2004), the ninth Motor City Bowl (2005). And so on. Two of the recent bowl games Memphis has played in — the Motor City and Miami Beach (2014) — no longer exist.

When Memphis and Iowa State kick things off on December 30th, the Tigers will be playing in the 59th-annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl. No, it's not a trip to a tropical region or the grand stage of the New Year's Six. But it will be a prestigious event that just happens to be held on the same turf the Tigers call home. This is like leaving for college, only to return home for summer and falling in love with someone you'd passed in high school halls for years. (I know this magic distinctly.)

And let's not forget the football team Memphis will be cheering. If it can't already be called the greatest in the history of the program, it's now leading the conversation. A win in the Liberty Bowl would give the Tigers 11 for the season, a total never reached in more than a century of Memphis football. The team has scored the most points (572) in program history and needed only 12 games to break the record set in 13 contests by the 2015 team.

And bless the football gods for giving Memphis fans one more chance to see seniors Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller do extraordinary things in blue and gray. Before the end of the first quarter, Ferguson should become the first Memphis quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in a season (he needs 29). If Miller catches eight passes, he'll become the first Memphis receiver to pull down 100 receptions in a season. And 93 yards would give the Christian Brothers High School alum 1,500 for the year. We will not see these numbers regularly, if ever again. Ferguson and Miller, it can be said, are the Finch and Robinson of Memphis football.

Embrace the disappointment, if such is possible. The Peach Bowl was there for the taking. (Note: The first Peach Bowl was played in 1968, three years after the Liberty Bowl game had moved to Memphis.) But a top-20 Memphis football team is playing in one of the top 10 (out of 40!) bowl games in the country. Right here in Memphis. Liberty is a blessing.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Tigers 83, Mercer 81 (2 OT)

Posted By on Sat, Dec 2, 2017 at 7:57 PM

Two overtime periods at the AAC football championship this afternoon in Orlando were not enough for those who wear University of Memphis colors. The Tigers and Mercer Bears needed two extra sessions to decide things at FedExForum, with Memphis hitting 16 of 18 free throws over the ten bonus minutes to earn another comeback win in what's been a staggering start to the 2017-18 season.

Down for much of the game — nine points at halftime and and eight with six minutes to play — the Tigers tied the game (63-63) at the end of regulation on a three-pointer by freshman Jamal Johnson well beyond the arc. It was the fourth (and last) three-pointer Johnson hit on 12 attempts.
Jamal Johnson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jamal Johnson

Junior point guard Jeremiah Martin converted a three-point play and later hit three free throws after being fouled on a long-distance attempt to give the Tigers a 75-73 lead with five seconds left in the first overtime. But Mercer guard Jordan Strawberry drove the length of the floor and drew a foul on Tiger forward Mike Parks with 1.2 seconds left. Strawberry hit both free throws to force the second OT session. (Strawberry's father, Darryl — the former baseball star — watched the game from a courtside seat near the Bears' bench. His son hit a pair of three-pointers in the first overtime after scoring only three points in regulation.)

All eight of the Tigers' points in the second overtime came from the foul line. Martin hit four (the final two with 2.8 seconds left), Parks two, and Kareem Brewton two more to provide the margin of victory. Martin deflected the Bears' inbounds pass with just over a second to play to seal the win.

"I thought our kids showed a lot of courage, a lot of toughness," said Tiger coach Tubby Smith. "We weren't shooting the ball well at all, especially from three, but we found a way to win."

More than half the Tigers' field-goal attempts came from long range, but they only connected on seven of 34 (21 percent). Martin and Brewton combined to miss 10 of 12 shots beyond the arc. "We took threes we shouldn't have taken," acknowledged Smith. "They were in a zone. But there were entirely too many threes. We haven't been shooting it well. Luckily, we scored off turnovers, and got the ball into the paint. Second-chance points were big. Guys aren't shooting the ball in rhythm. Often, guys are shooting after a bad pass, instead of making an extra pass."

Martin led the Tigers with 19 points and dished out six assists with only two turnovers in 45 minutes of play. Senior forward Jimario Rivers also played more than 40 minutes (42) and scored 18 after being held scoreless at UAB Thursday night. Junior Kyvon Davenport scored 10 points and led Memphis with 11 rebounds before fouling out. Johnson finished with 12 points and Brewton 10. Johnson played 39 minutes off the Tiger bench.

Stephon Jelks led the Bears — minus their leading scorer, Ria'n Holland — with 17 points. Mercer falls to 5-4 with the loss.

"We need to look at our offense and see how we can get more movement," said Smith. "More cuts to the basket. It's early yet. This was our sixth game and their ninth. It makes a difference when you have games under your belt. We're still learning."

Now 4-2, the Tigers will host Samford Tuesday night, then Bryant next Saturday afternoon.

AAC Championship: #12 UCF 62, #16 Memphis 55 (OT)

Posted By on Sat, Dec 2, 2017 at 3:36 PM

The two highest-scoring teams in college football this season played the highest-scoring game in the history of conference championships Saturday afternoon in Orlando.

And one of them had to lose.

UCF junior Tre Neal intercepted Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson on a third-down play in the second overtime to clinch the American Athletic Conference championship and keep the Knights undefeated (12-0). The victory will send UCF to the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day, even as its coach, Scott Frost, is headed to Nebraska according to reports by ESPN. (The report was released during overtime of Saturday's telecast on ABC.) The loss drops Memphis to 10-2 on the season and means the Tigers will play in a second-tier bowl game, though it could well be the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on December 30th.

The game featured four lead changes, with the Tigers twice erasing double-digit deficits. Down 24-14 in the second quarter, Memphis forced turnovers on three consecutive Knight possessions and scored after each to take a 31-24 lead into halftime.
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UCF scored touchdowns on its first three possessions of the second half, then added a field early in the fourth quarter to take a 48-34 lead with just under 14 minutes to play. But sophomore tailback Tony Pollard scampered 66 yards for one touchdown and Ferguson hit senior wideout Anthony Miller for a 10-yard score (Miller's second of the game and 38th of his brilliant career) to tie the game at 48 with 4:13 to play.

Freshman kicker Riley Patterson missed a 51-yard field goal attempt with less than a minute left that could have won the championship for Memphis. (A previous 46-yard attempt was blocked but nullified by a delay-of-game penalty against the Tigers.)

Memphis scored on the first possession of overtime, Ferguson connecting with Miller from 15 yards. UCF answered with a two-yard run by Adrian Killins.

The Knights found the end zone again on the first possession of the second overtime period, this time a one-yard run by Otis Anderson that proved to be the game-winner when Neal picked off Ferguson.

The offensive numbers were eye-popping, even for these two explosive teams. UCF gained 726 yards, the most allowed by Memphis all season, while the Tigers gained 753, their most all season. UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton — the AAC Offensive Player of the Year — passed for 494 yards and five touchdowns (but tossed three interceptions). Ferguson — along with Milton, named first-team All-AAC — passed for 471 yards and four touchdowns, extending his record for touchdowns in a season to 36. Miller caught 14 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns (giving him 92 catches and 1,407 yards for the season). Sophomore tight end Sean Dykes caught three passes for 161 yards, while a pair of Tiger sophomores had 100 yards on the ground: Darrell Henderson with 109 and Patrick Taylor with 107. Tony Pollard rushed for 71 yards on just three carries and had 72 more yards on six receptions.

Memphis will learn its bowl destination Sunday and this year's seniors will become the first class of Tigers to play in four bowl games. That destination could be Birmingham or Hawaii (where the AAC has bowl affiliations) or it could mean a return home to the Liberty Bowl, as the SEC is short on bowl-eligible teams, opening what could be a welcome slot for the highest-scoring team the U of M has ever produced.

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