The Tigers will play few halves this season as ugly as the first 20 minutes tonight against Arkansas State. They fell behind 11-2 and 22-9 before halftime mercifully came with the home team down but four points (32-28). They took 35 shots . . . and missed 27. Six attempts from beyond the three-point stripe . . . six misses. Three assists and seven turnovers. Exactly one Tiger had more than a single field goal, and Wesley Witherspoon was two for seven.
ASU was led in the first half by forward Martavius Adams who had 11 points in the first 15 minutes before taking a seat with his third foul. Tiger big men Will Coleman (three fouls) and Pierre Henderson-Niles (two) were also caught up in the banging underneath. Overall the game featured 23 fouls and 19 field goals in the first half.
“We came out slow,” acknowledged Elliot Williams after the game. “They were intense, and we were kind of on our heels. But in the second half we picked up our intensity.” As he has every game this season, the sophomore guard led Memphis in scoring with 20 points, 11 of them after halftime, when he converted five of seven field-goal attempts. (Williams became the first Tiger since Sean Banks in 2004 to have five straight 20-point games.)
Adams and Henderson-Niles picked up double-technicals three minutes into the second half, which forced Adams to the bench for much of the game’s balance. He didn’t score another point.
Tiger point guard Willie Kemp rebounded his own missed free throw and fed Williams for a layup and a 40-39 lead with just over 14 minutes left in the game. It was a lead the Tigers would not relinquish. Despite his foul trouble, Coleman was the energizer with eight points, 10 rebounds, and a blocked shot that nearly decapitated a Memphis dance-squad member late in the second half. “I try every night to bring energy to the team,” said Coleman. “In the beginning, I played very unsound, undisciplined. But at halftime I talked to the coaches and I knew what had to happen.”
“We were getting open looks, we just weren’t knocking them down,” said Williams. “But you can always benefit from playing behind. When our team goes on the road, this may happen. We knew were going to make a run. Just stay poised and play defense.” The Tigers outscored the Red Wolves 48-24 in the paint and scored 26 points off turnovers.
Tiger coach Josh Pastner appreciated the grinding his team did, and agreed with Williams that some good can come out of his team’s having to fight from behind. “We won this game because we won the 50-50 balls,” he said. “What hurt us in the beginning was transition baskets. It was not pretty offensively, but there are going to be nights like this. Our golden rule is: The open man is the go-to man. You’ve got to make the right play, the right pass, the extra pass.
“This was good for us, because it was a gut-check,” he added. “We had to grind it out, and learned a lot about ourselves. We had some point-blank shots that we missed, and it’s important to make those.”
The Tigers next play Wednesday night — their fifth straight game at FedExForum — against Montana State.