Thursday, February 22, 2018

Tigers 91, #23 Houston 85

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2018 at 11:59 PM

Unlikely. Unscripted. Unexpected. And purely gratifying.

With their star point guard being fitted for a walking boot, the Memphis Tigers erased a nine-point deficit over the game's final 16 minutes and upset the 23rd-ranked Houston Cougars Thursday night at FedExForum. Junior swingman Raynere Thornton came off the bench and scored a season-high 21 points (four of five from three-point range) in just 19 minutes of playing time to lead the way along with senior forward Jimario Rivers, who scored a career-high 21 points of his own. The two players combined to hit 17 of 18 free throws, every one of them critical in the biggest win in two years under coach Tubby Smith.

Memphis improves to 17-11 with the victory and 8-7 in the American Athletic Conference while Houston's five-game winning streak ends, leaving the Cougars with a 21-6 record (11-4 in the AAC). Rob Gray led Houston with 30 points.
click to enlarge Jimario Rivers - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jimario Rivers

"It was a great win for us," said Smith after the game, having changed his shirt following a postgame locker-room drenching. "I can't say enough about our kids. They raised their level of play, raised their level of intensity. Especially after Jeremiah [Martin] went down. Walking out at halftime, I said, 'We're gonna win this one for you.' We had outstanding effort throughout the lineup. Most complete game we've had all year long."

Memphis point guard Jeremiah Martin — the AAC's top scorer — limped off the court with 5:16 left to play in the first half. He turned an ankle with his team down 31-24 and would not return to action. (Martin scored nine points, dropping his average from 19.3 to 18.9.) The injury, it turned out, only added to the dramatic effect of the Tigers' first win over an AP-ranked opponent under Smith. (Memphis beat Final Four-bound South Carolina in December 2016, but the Gamecocks were ranked only in the coaches' poll.)

Playing before a louder-than-they-looked crowd (announced attendance: 6,536), the Tigers stayed within competitive distance through halftime (down 43-39), but looked to be a beaten team when the Cougars surged early in the second half to a 58-49 lead. But a pair of Thornton free throws at the 10:52 mark put the Tigers in front (63-62). Back-to-back three-pointers by Thornton and junior guard Malik Rhodes put Memphis up by six (74-68) with 7:11 to play. The three points were the first for Rhodes since his return from a two-game suspension for a violation of team policy.

The Cougars closed within four points with a minute to play, but Thornton and Rhodes each hit a pair of free throws in the final minute to secure the win. The Tigers outscored Houston 42-27 over the game's final 15:40 to clinch an 18th consecutive winning season for the program.

"Jeremiah's a great player, but when he went down, we fought for one another," said Rivers. "We tried to get as many stops as we could. If we moved the ball on offense, we knew we could score."

Smith said the key to Thornton's long-distance shooting touch is an age-old tip: look at the rim, not the ball. "I've been putting up more shots after practice," said Thornton. "Building my confidence."

Rhodes was especially pleased to join a postgame press conference, even if it meant discussing his recent punishment. "My teammates have been there for me, from the day I got suspended," he said. "They told me I just have to keep proving myself. That three felt good."

"I hope it inspires them to listen," emphasized Smith. "They did a good job of following the game plan. That's the toughest thing for them, staying focused for an extended period of time. They did that tonight. You've got to play with emotion, but without being emotional. That's been a real challenge for us. Act like you've been here before. You're supposed to make that three. You're supposed to make that stop. That's what we taught you to do."

The Tigers' three remaining regular-season games are against teams below them in the AAC standings. Pay no attention to underdogs and favorites, at least not with Smith in the room. "I expect them to be better," said Smith. "This is certainly going to build confidence. It's gonna build confidence in me, that I can play Malik Rhodes. That Raynere Thornton is making shots. They can get the job done when they're put in a position to do it.

"They won't be looking past tomorrow. They just won't. They'll want to, but I won't let it happen. I've been in this business 45 years. I'm secure in who I am, and I'm pretty damn successful at what I do."

The Tigers travel to Connecticut for their next game, where they'll face the Huskies this Sunday. They'll finish the regular season by hosting USF on March 1st and East Carolina on March 4th.


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