Over the course of his first 39 games as a Memphis Tiger, D.J. Stephens averaged 8.2 minutes per game, with 1.8 points and 2.0 rebounds. He’s been “an energy guy” for Josh Pastner’s first two teams.
Until tonight. The sophomore with hops that would do Clyde Drexler proud played 29 minutes and reached new career highs in both points (13) and rebounds (11). Stephens was integral in a game that, in artistic terms, was more Pollock than Pissarro. The Tigers and Hilltoppers combined for 50 field goals, 46 fouls, and 41 turnovers. The 16-point margin was due to Western Kentucky shooting merely 31 percent for the game (missing 14 of 18 three-point attempts). In a game this ugly, “the energy guy” was a beautiful sight.
“The reason [Stephens] started was because another guy was late to a film session,” said Pastner with a smile following the game. “He made the most of it. When he came out of high school, he was being recruited by NAIA and Division III schools; prep schools didn’t even want him. It just goes to show you that recruiting rankings don’t mean everything. You can’t open a person’s chest and see the heart pounding, and see the fortitude. It’s about character. D.J. is a high-character student-athlete.”
Despite being outrebounded 25-18, the Tigers led by 16 at halftime, thanks to 16 WKU turnovers. A 10-2 run by the Hilltoppers helped close the Tiger lead to eight with 13 minutes left to play, but the Tigers answered late, often with put-back baskets from Stephens, who found seams in Western Kentucky’s zone defense that allowed him to hit the glass a bit higher than most other men on the court.
“I just gave a lot of effort,” said Stephens. “I guess Coach saw that. I tried to grab as many rebounds as I could. If I had the open shot, I took it. And if I had an open dunk, I dunked everything. Certain parts of the zone will be open. I try to anticipate where the ball’s going to go and get in those gaps.”
Freshman center Tarik Black scored 11 points and grabbed five rebounds for Memphis. Fellow freshman Joe Jackson added 15 points and dished out six assists. Senior center Will Coleman had a remarkable stat line, one that spells out the enigma he’s becoming for this team: six minutes, seven points, three rebounds, three fouls. A combined eight rebounds from Black and Coleman will have Pastner sweating as he prepares the team for fourth-ranked Kansas Tuesday night in New York City.
“Coach [Bill] Self is a Hall of Famer,” said Pastner when asked about the Tigers’ biggest game of the season to date. “They’ve got big-time players. But this is a long season. The Kansas game isn’t any bigger than this game today; it’s just another game. Our preparation will remain the same. We’re 7-0, and I told the guys, don’t take that for granted. It’s not easy to do.”
Another star freshman, Will Barton, made his first start as a Tiger, but made only four of 11 field-goal attempts and was limited to 11 points. The Tigers hit only four of 13 from three-point range, a number that will have to improve with the mighty Jayhawks looming.
Just another game Tuesday night, in Madison Square Garden? Don’t tell Tarik Black. “I love lights,” he said with a smile. “Going up to New York, there are gonna be a lot of lights.”