A season of give and take continued for the Tigers tonight at FedExForum. In a game that featured 14 lead changes, Memphis took a little more than they gave to earn its 20th win of the season and fourth straight. In improving to 8-3 in Conference USA play, the Tigers leapfrogged UAB in the league standings and — with UTEP’s loss to Southern Miss — now occupy first place by percentage points (the Miners are 7-3).
UAB went on a 16-5 tear to open the second half and take a 40-33 lead, only to see Memphis answer with a 16-4 run. Playing without junior forward Cameron Moore (15.6 points per game), the Blazers stayed in the contest behind freshman Anthony Criswell (12 points, eight rebounds), sophomore Ovie Soko (18 points), and senior point guard Aaron Johnson (12 points, 10 assists).
Freshman Will Barton led the way for the Tigers with 17 points, followed by Joe Jackson with 12 and Charles Carmouche with 10. Jackson played 20 minutes, his most in four games, and converted two free throws inside the last minute that helped preserve the win. (Memphis made 6 of 9 foul shots over the game’s last 60 seconds.)
The Tigers have now won 11 straight over UAB. Will Barton acknowledged the 20th win as an important milestone. “To get 20 wins this early in the season is big,” he said in the locker room after the game. “We’ve just got to keep it going, keep pushing. Our conference is underrated; no game is a push-over. Come tournament time, you have to be able to win tight games.” Memphis is now 13-2 in games decided by fewer than 10 points.
Junior forward Wesley Witherspoon returned to the floor after missing the previous nine games due to a suspension and knee soreness. He hit all three of his field-goal attempts in 15 minutes of action. “When I found out he was playing,” said Chris Crawford, “I was probably the most excited, because I missed him. He brings a lot of energy. He’s a veteran, so we look up to him.”
The Tigers held UAB to 36 percent shooting from the field. Which is precisely what coach Josh Pastner considers the difference in this team’s fortunes. “The bottom line is difference,” he said. “We lead the league in field-goal-percentage defense. You’ve got to hang your hat on defense. We let guys have some freedom on offense, but you have to be able to defend.”
Memphis plays three of its next four games on the road, including what could be a battle for first place at UTEP on February 26th. “Every game is important,” emphasized Pastner. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d get 20 wins when we had our backs against the wall, twice. But this game’s done with. Tomorrow, we have to get back to work. Rice is a good team. We’re going to have to come out with an unbelievable fire and passion.”
Senior center Will Coleman only played eight minutes (and didn’t score a point or grab a rebound). Pastner said it was simply a matter of playing style tonight, the flow of the game dictating his substitution pattern. Coleman left the locker room before the media was allowed to enter. Freshman center Tarik Black was held to seven points (on 2 of 8 shooting) and seven rebounds in 31 minutes. Nonetheless, the Tigers outscored UAB 30-26 on points in the paint.
The Tigers’ next home game will be Tuesday against Houston, with tip-off set for 8 p.m.