Want to know the first thing that went through new Tiger football coach Larry Porter’s head when he was introduced to 15,689 adoring fans at FedExForum tonight? “How can I get this many people in the Liberty Bowl?” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
After the pregame lovefest, the Tiger basketball team continued its welcome of rookie coach Josh Pastner by beating Oakland University, 77-46, for the home team’s third consecutive win. Elliot Williams led the Tigers in scoring — as he has all five games this season — with 20 points, while center Will Coleman scored 12 points, grabbed six rebounds, and blocked four shots. An Oakland team expected to compete for the Summit League championship was made to look like more early-season fodder for a Tiger team looking less and less like one in transition, and more like one on a mission.
“We did a good job of getting after it offensively,” said Williams after the game. “And defensively, the scouting report was great. Throughout the week, Coach Pastner told us this was an NCAA tournament team, that they had great players. Our team starts defensively, and that leads to good offense.”
Chief among Pastner’s concerns was the Golden Grizzlies’ junior center, Keith Benson, who entered the game averaging 18.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. The combination of Coleman and Pierre Henderson-Niles held Benson to nine points, and only three-of-13 shooting from the field. “When Benson caught it, we wanted to get it out of his hands, so we came right away,” explained Pastner. “We couldn’t let him get going. We executed the game plan and didn’t let him get comfortable.”
The Tigers actually outscored Oakland 48-20 in the paint and scored 29 points off of turnovers. Pastner pointed out how only 16 of the Tigers’ 62 shots were from three-point country, an indication that his team is getting “paint touches,” as he calls them. “We talked about not letting the zone slow us down,” said Pastner. “We didn’t settle for three-point shots. We moved the ball and got open looks.”
An unlikely spark for Memphis tonight was freshman guard D.J. Stephens. With the score tied at 10 midway through the first half, Stephens dove to the floor to preserve a Tiger possession that resulted in a three-pointer from Williams, and a lead the Tigers would never relinquish. He added a follow-up dunk after a missed shot midway through the second half, a play that didn’t surprise teammate Roburt Sallie at all. “He brings energy,” said Sallie. “He’s probably our best rebounder, better than Will Coleman. His offensive rebounding skills are the best. He’s a hustle man. And he’s learning. He started off last summer a little timid, a little scared, didn’t want to do anything. Now, he’s starting to feel his role on this team.”
Remarkably, the Tigers took only three free throws the entire game. Which says much about Oakland’s defensive gaps, and the Tigers’ ability to penetrate at will.
The U of M will look to extend its winning streak to four Saturday night, when Arkansas State visits FedExForum.