There is no such thing as a “gimme” for these Memphis Tigers. Facing Conference USA’s cellar-dwellers, the Tigers needed a 13-3 run over a five-minute stretch late in the second half to avoid becoming only the fourth C-USA victim for Tulane. A late three-pointer by Antonio Barton gave the Tigers their largest lead of the game — 64-58 — with 1:08 left in the game. The clinching shot was one of four treys the Tiger converted (in 14 attempts), compared with nine (in 18 shots) by Tulane.
The win completes the Tigers’ regular season with a record of 22-9 and earns the U of M a bye into the quarterfinals of next week’s C-USA tournament in El Paso. Better yet, the win ends a two-game losing streak that was gaining in weight on the Tigers’ collective psyche.
“Tulane lost 12 games in a row,” said coach Josh Pastner after the game, “but I think eight of those games were single digits. They lost to UTEP by three, should have beaten Marshall. A team that shoots like that . . . they’re a good team. I’d like to win by 30 or 40, but the way the league is this year — and our youth — there hasn’t been any separation.”
Positive as ever, Pastner nonetheless managed to quell any euphoria in the locker room. “I told them there’s no celebrating,” said Pastner. “I told them we’re getting on a plane Monday, and to not get on if they’re not planning on winning three games [and the C-USA championship]. Everybody’s got to be ready.”
The Tigers’ lone senior, Will Coleman, was honored before the game, strolling to midcourt with his parents and sister to thunderous applause from the crowd of 17,278 at FedExForum. He played the first six minutes of the game (scoring three points and grabbing three rebounds) then sat on the bench the remainder of the contest.
“I love Will Coleman,” said Pastner, “and I wish I could have played him 40 minutes. But because of the game and the lineup that Tulane has — they shoot threes — and the way Tarik [Black] was playing, I felt it was best for us to go small.” Freshman center Black came off the bench for Coleman and had a season-high 24 points with 11 rebounds, his first career double-double.
“It was emotional,” said Coleman. “My mom can barely walk; her back is bad. But she drove here to support me, and I love her to death.” Coleman was pleased to get the win, emphasizing that his team has work to do. “Three games is always better than four,” he stressed, “in a hostile environment like El Paso.”
The Tigers picked up 20 assists on 26 made field goals, a remarkably high percentage for a team that’s struggled with ball movement for long stretches of the season. Will Barton dished out six assists to go with 15 points and five rebounds, his finest outing since the win over UAB on February 16th. Fellow freshman Chris Crawford was also integral with seven assists and a late three-pointer that seized a 57-55 lead for the Tigers.
“It felt good to see one go down,” said Crawford. “It’s just my confidence, a mind thing. Everyone expects us to blow teams out, but Tulane’s a good team; they make shots. If we can start making shots, our confidence will be sky-high.
“I can pass, I can shoot, I can be a lock-down defender,” said Crawford. “I want to do whatever it takes to win.” Crawford and Charles Carmouche combined to limit Tulane’s Kendall Timmons to 14 points. All five Green Wave starters reached double figures in scoring.
As the Memphis locker room cleared, Black smiled when asked about the impact Will Coleman has had on him during their only season as teammates. “He’s probably influenced me more than the coaches,” said Black. “He’s where I learned everything. Playing against him, I’ve felt if I can score on him, I can score on anybody.
“The things he does in the community — I’m that kind of personality anyway, but he showed me how to do it. And just being a student in college. The first week of class, I was walking around, had to ask Will where my class was. He asked which teacher I had, told me I’d be alright. That makes you a better person all-around. I’m gonna miss him greatly; we’ll definitely stay in touch.”