Perhaps a corner has been turned. Coming off back-to-back road wins at Southern Miss and UAB, the Tigers dismissed any thoughts of a letdown against a slumping UCF team by storming out to a 19-point halftime lead tonight at FedExForum. Freshman swingman Will Barton hit six of nine shots for 14 points over the game’s first 20 minutes, and Memphis used a 15-2 run over the last four minutes before halftime to essentially put away a team that three weeks ago was 14-0. The Tigers shot 53 percent from the field in the first half (and 48 percent for the game) against the top-ranked defense in Conference USA.
The win improves the U of M to 16-4 (5-1 in C-USA play). And it gives the Tigers a four-game winning streak, their longest since starting the season 7-0. But the mood afterward was hardly satisfied.
“A good win for the Tigers,” said coach Josh Pastner after the game. “We are such a young team, the youngest the University of Memphis has ever put on the floor. One of the things we have to learn is that when you have a team down, you can’t get loosey-goosey. The offensive rebounds we gave up and the turnovers we allowed in the second half . . . that’s the sign of a young team.”
Will Barton scored a game-high 17 points for the Tigers, with Joe Jackson adding 12 and Will Coleman and Chris Crawford each scoring 10. Despite fouling out with 8:14 left to play, freshman center Tarik Black scored 9 points and blocked 5 shots. He’s the first Memphis player to have six straight games this season with at least 9 points. Like his coach, Black feels the team is improving, but only as part of a process.
“We’re getting better; it’s a steady process,” said Black after the game. “This game wasn’t consistent for the whole 40 minutes, but we put a good 30 minutes together. It’s probably the best we’ve been for the longest.”
Black attributed the separation on the scoreboard to the style the Tigers were able to play, especially early in the game. “We’ve always considered ourselves a running team, an athletic team,” said Black. “I don’t think too many teams in the country are as athletic as we are: Joe [Jackson], Will Coleman, D.J. [Stephens], Will Barton. I’d like to think I’m pretty athletic.”
The Tigers held UCF to 35-percent shooting for the game. The Knights’ leading scorer, Marcus Jordan, only had six points at halftime and finished with 13. Keith Clanton was held to 7, less than half his average. The loss is the fifth straight for UCF (now 14-5).
“We got our offense off our defense,” said Pastner. “That’s why we were able to extend our lead.”
So, a corner turned? “I don’t think there’s necessarily a corner to turn,” said Black. “But we’re getting better, and you can start to see how much we’ve learned.”
The Tigers travel to Marshall Saturday to face the Thundering Herd, a team they beat in Memphis on January 15th.