Josh Pastner chuckles when he refers to his basketball team as “the cardiac kids.” But then he describes fans that insist he stop joking about chest pains and heart attacks after the latest narrow Tiger win. Deep breath, Coach.
Having trailed most of the game tonight against a Southern Miss team that entered FedExForum riding a four-game winning streak, the Tigers pulled out another nail-biter, finally separating themselves with a 10-3 run over the game’s final three minutes. Will Barton scored on an inside move with just under a minute to play to give Memphis a 63-58 lead. After a three-pointer by the Golden Eagles’ Angelo Johnson closed the lead to two, Pastner called a timeout with 35 seconds to play. The ball again found Barton who isolated himself for drive to the basket and converted an up-and-under shot to seal the victory.
“The play actually wasn’t designed for me,” said Barton after the game. “I waved Chris [Crawford] off, because they had a bigger guy on me I didn’t think could guard me. I wanted to get to the rim, make a basket or get an assist. With the game on the line, I’m not going to let someone else have the ball. I envision it, and it’s a reaction. My focus is getting to the rim, if not on my first move, then on a secondary move.”
The Golden Eagles raced out to a 12-point lead midway through the first half, led by six at halftime, and remained in front until Tiger junior Charles Carmouche buried a three-pointer to tie the score at 51 with 8:45 to play. D.J. Stephens hit a jump-hook and dunked an alley-oop pass around a three-pointer from Southern Miss star Gary Flowers to make the score 57-54 with five minutes to play. But Flowers fouled out ten seconds later, having been limited to 19 minutes and 14 points (six below his average).
Tiger center Tarik Black managed to stay out of foul trouble in the first half, despite guarding Flowers (along with a few teammates). He ended up playing a season-high 35 minutes, scored 17 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and blocked four shots. “We want to get on our own winning streak,” said Black after his team’s third consecutive victory. “This was one road block, and we had to knock it down.”
Freshman guard Chris Crawford played a stellar game for the home team, with nine points, seven rebounds, five assists, and a pair of free throws for the final points of the contest. Will Barton joined Black in double figures with 16 points, including those two critical field goals in the game’s closing minutes.
“This was a good win,” emphasized Pastner. “That’s an NCAA tournament team. They don’t get enough credit for going to Cal and winning. I’ve been in the Pac 10, so I know how hard that is. They’ve got a pro [Flowers] and a case could be made for Larry Eustachy as [C-USA] Coach of the Year. We stopped the three, and we came up with some big rebounds late.”
The win improves the Tigers’ record to 12-2 in games decided by fewer than 10 points. Better, the win moves Memphis ahead of Southern Miss (now 7-4 in league play) in the C-USA standings. “I’ve never been around a bad win,” said Pastner when asked if beating a potential NCAA-tournament team is especially rewarding. “Win by one or win by 88, it doesn’t matter. Winning’s fun, and losing stinks.”
Now 19-6 (7-3 in C-USA), the Tigers will host UAB Wednesday night at FedExForum. Tip-off at 6 pm.