Have nine days in the history of Memphis Tiger basketball ever felt longer? Tiger Nation was still grieving the dispiriting loss to Kansas in New York City on December 7th when coach Josh Pastner announced that junior forward Wesley Witherspoon — the team's top scorer — would undergo knee surgery and be out of the lineup for five weeks. A day later, junior forward Angel Garcia announced he was leaving the team to play professionally in Spain. That news simmered a day or two before sophomore forward D.J. Stephens was sidelined with a groin injury. What was a 10-man rotation for one game became a 7-man unit the next (tonight), with a redshirt removed from freshman forward Hippolyte Tsafack.
A return to the floor would surely be salve for the wound (if the wound had, in fact, stopped bleeding). Enter the Austin Peay Governors.
After falling behind 24-14, the Govs went on an astounding 29-4 run that bridged halftime and gave the visitors a 15-point lead not quite seven minutes into the second half. After scoring only four points in the first half, Austin Peay’s top scorer, Tyshawn Edmondson scored 12 in the first eight minutes of the second half.
The Tigers responded with a 19-4 run of their own, sparked by the long-distance marksmanship of Charles Carmouche (three of five from beyond the arc) and Chris Crawford (five of eight, including two in overtime).
Emondson drained a three-pointer to give Austin Peay a 55-53 lead with a minute to play. After each team hit one of two free throws, freshman guard Antonio Barton hit a runner from ten feet to tie the score with 12 seconds left. “Coach [Jack] Murphy had me working on that shot all week in practice,” said Barton in a relatively quiet Tiger locker room after the game. “It was kind of funny, because he said you never know when that shot will come in handy. So I felt comfortable in that situation.” Barton finished the game with nine points.
After a last-second drive by Edmondson was thwarted, the Tigers gained control in the extra period. Crawford hit a pair of three-pointers and was followed by a Will Barton trey to give Memphis a 65-62 lead with 1:45 to play. Will Coleman scored inside to make it 67-62, then Joe Jackson and Will Barton each split a pair of free throws in the final minute to provide the final margin of victory. A final attempt by the Governors — on a baseline inbounds play — went awry from the right corner as the buzzer sounded.
“We just kept our heads up, stayed focus,” said Crawford, who finished with 18 points to lead the Tigers. “I’m never shy about taking the long ball.”
The Tigers improved to 8-1 on the season, despite giving up 74 shots to the Governors (Memphis took 56), the result of Austin Peay grabbing 22 offensive rebounds and outscoring the Tigers 19-5 on second-chance points. Memphis committed 24 turnovers, compared with 20 by the Governors. This was ugly basketball.
“You gotta fight through it all,” said Crawford. “Without D.J. and Wesley, we just had to grind it out.”
“That was scary,” said Coleman. “They killed us on the boards. We stayed in there the whole 45 minutes, and grinded it out.”
Having lost a trio of players who averaged a combined 52 minutes, Pastner was forced to play a rotation of essentially seven players (Tsafack and Drew Barham combined for 17 minutes). Five Tigers played at least 30 minutes, with Will Barton logging a team-high 41.
“There’s no such thing as a bad win,” said Pastner. “The last 17 minutes of the game, we had one turnover. Prior to that, we had 23. This happens. Look at college basketball. Tennessee took a loss against Oakland. For us to find a way to win . . . I’m 33, but my body feels like 88. It wears on you.”
Pastner acknowledged an adjustment forced by the smaller roster. “When we were down 15 in the second half, we went small. Instead of going with two bigs, we put Will Barton at the four. That gave us some momentum, and we made a run from there.”
Carmouche finished with a season-high 16 points and led the Tigers with seven rebounds. Coleman blocked four shots in 22 minutes of playing time and Jackson made three steals in 21 minutes.
Edmondson led Austin Peay (now 6-6) with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
The 18th-ranked Tigers return to action Monday night when they host Texas A & M-Corpus Christi.