Among all the eye-popping numbers the Tiger basketball program has put together over the last few years, I think this one’s my favorite: Memphis has had four winning streaks of at least 15 games (three of them at least 20 games) since the last time they lost two in a row.
The U of M had a nice bounce-back tonight against Houston, putting away any thoughts of the school’s first losing streak in almost five years. Tied at halftime with the Cougars, the Tigers reeled off a 13-2 run to start the second half and never let the margin fall below 10 points again.
It was as well-rounded a performance as the Tigers have enjoyed all season. Sharing the chore of guarding the nation’s leading scorer, Aubrey Coleman, Doneal Mack and Roburt Sallie picked up the scoring slack in the second half when Elliot Williams went to the bench with four fouls and 16 minutes left to play. They combined to drain five three-pointers in the second half, Sallie finishing the game with 20 points and Mack with 17. The tandem dished out nine assists against only one turnover. (As for Coleman, he got his points: 32. But many of them were in traffic and against tight defense, among the reasons Coleman will be wearing an NBA jersey next winter.)
Wesley Witherspoon hit an early trey and said “All night long” as he back-stepped down the court. He went on to score 20 points and grab six rebounds before fouling out late in the game. “He just stepped up,” said Pierre Henderson-Niles after the game. “I knew he was going to have a big night; he just kept going right at them. It’s confidence. He’s coming out early in practice. Confidence.” Playing with a splint on his right hand — the result of a dislocated finger suffered in the UTEP game last Wednesday — Henderson-Niles scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in 24 minutes.
In outscoring Houston 53-38 in the second half (shooting a stellar 68 percent), the Tigers used the game as a statement of sorts for the rest of Conference USA, a league ready to expose any chink in the longtime front-runner’s armor. “I think tonight was the first time we were all shooting the ball at a high level,” said Sallie. “When we’re clicking, we’re hard to guard. We’ve got so many guys who can do different things.”
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve never lost two in a row,” added Henderson Niles. “So we had to jump out on top. [The Tigers led 11-3 four minutes into the game.] They came back, but we hung in there and came away with the win.”
For the sixth straight game, the Tigers were outrebounded (32-30), and this time to a team that is usually on the short end of that stat line. Coach Josh Pastner emphasized toughness at halftime.
“I was fired up with the guys, it was ridiculous,” said Pastner. “I said Wesley, I’m tired of you gambling defensively. Get back and play sound, fundamental defense. Will Coleman, Pierre, you have to get hard-nosed rebounds! If you don’t, this is not going to be the year we want. I told Rob Sallie, you’re too good of a shooter. Gosh darn it, make your shot! You should not miss those shots; put the ball in the basket.
“To their credit, they came out in the second half and executed. They played hard. I knew after an emotional loss Wednesday, it was important for us to get a W tonight.”
Now 14-5 (4-1 in C-USA), the Tigers travel to Marshall to face the Thundering Herd Wednesday night.