With just under 10 minutes to play in Friday night's game between the Tigers and Tennessee Tech at FedExForum, Memphis sophomore Wesley Witherspoon went sprawling out of bounds near midcourt, saved a loose ball by slinging it backward over his head, and slammed into the scorer's table. The hustle play gained the U of M a possession in a game they were leading at the time . . . by 26 points.
"Our identity is scrap," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after the victory, which leaves Memphis with a record of 2-1. "Get after it, stay after it. For us to be able to have a chance, we have to be scrappy."
Any possibility that the Tigers would suffer a letdown after Tuesday night's narrow loss to top-ranked Kansas was erased with the sight of Hall of Famer Lute Olson sitting across the court from the Tiger bench. With Pastner's mentor from his days as a player and assistant coach at Arizona merely 60 feet away, this was a night for the apprentice to show the master that The Right Way was alive and well.
"We weren't concerned [about a letdown]," said Tiger guard Elliot Williams, who led Memphis with 23 points. "Coach Pastner stressed that that's what everyone expected, for us to have a letdown. We came out strong defensively. Every game is big for us. It's not hard to get up for this." A soaring, two-handed dunk by Williams late in the first half lifted the crowd of 16,707 out of their seats. When he followed on the next possession with a 30-foot lob to Will Coleman for another dunk, the affair was settled.
"Keeping the same intensity was important," said Coleman, "to show people that the Kansas game wasn't a fluke. Defense, defense, defense . . . and hustle plays. Every loose ball, we're sacrificing. Coach preaches that a lot."
The Tigers found their long-range shooting touch for the first time this season, Willie Kemp draining three treys and Doneal Mack four. (Roburt Sallie continued to slump, missing all three of his long-distance attempts tonight.) Kemp is regaining control of his team's offensive flow, his six assists and one turnover calling to mind performances from his freshman season of 2006-07.
"In the second half," added Pastner, "the reason we were able to make shots is that we penetrated, kicked, and made the extra pass. When that happened, we were able to get better looks. The disappointing thing — and we have really good guards — is that we made 14 turnovers. We have to be better than that. But overall toughness, I was proud of our guys."
The Tigers will host Central Arkansas next Tuesday night at FedExForum.