As “Opening Night” goes, this was a nice lunch hour for the home team. Tipping off at 11 a.m. to accommodate ESPN’s 24-hour coverage of college basketball, the Tigers held off a game Belmont team that had lost by a single point to 6th-ranked Duke last Friday. Joe Jackson (20), Will Barton (23), and senior Wesley Witherspoon (22) combined to score 65 points for the Tigers and the Memphis defense held the Bruins to 39-percent shooting from the field. The win is the Tigers’ eighth straight in season openers.
After a junior season of injury, suspension, and disappointing performances, Witherspoon seemed as relieved as he was satisfied with his showing. He hit all three of his shots from three-point range and tied for the team lead with five rebounds. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been healthy and been able to play this way,” he said in the Tiger locker room after the game. “This was an emotional game for me.”
Tiger coach Josh Pastner knew a team that won 30 games last season and returns four starters would not be your typical opening-game fodder. “I took my family to the Bahamas for a clinic after they scheduled this game last summer,” said Pastner “And over four days in the Bahamas, all I thought about was Belmont. We’ve got to be prepared for Belmont. This was going to be a tough game, and we wanted to get off on the right foot. Maybe it’s because I’m obsessive, but that’s all I thought about the whole time.”
Wearing uniforms designed to match those of the iconic 1972-73 NCAA finalists (a team that featured Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, and Larry Kenon), Memphis pushed the offensive pace, even when pressed in the full court by the Bruins. Sophomore center Tarik Black picked up two fouls in the game’s first minute, but was capably replaced by junior transfer Stan Simpson, who scored four points, grabbed two rebounds, and blocked a shot in 13 minutes on the floor.
But the game was decided by the Tigers’ stars. Along with Witherspoon’s return to form, Jackson, Adonis Thomas, and Will Barton formed an athletic trio few teams in the country can match. Leading by only eight at halftime, Memphis stretched the lead to 16 (68-52) over the first eight minutes of the second half. As Jackson pressed the accelerator for the offense, Barton and Thomas were the prime recipients of the point guard’s passes (Jackson finished with seven assists and two turnovers). When Thomas and Chris Crawford hit back-to-back treys for that 16-point lead, it appeared Memphis would be able to coast over the game’s final 12 minutes.
And it wasn’t just the offensive pace. “We played good defense,” said Crawford, “and took their [three-point shooting] out of the game.” Belmont missed 14 of 20 shots from downtown. J.J Mann led the Bruins with 18 points. Ian Clark of Memphis contributed 16.
The Bruins took advantage of a flagrant foul called on Witherspoon with 9:22 left in the game to close the Tiger lead to nine, and eventually seven. But Memphis pulled away with an 18-9 run to finish the contest.
After going scoreless in his first half as a college player, Thomas showed the tools that have had Tiger fans talking for months about the possibilities Pastner’s latest McDonald’s All-American brings the program. He hit five of seven shots after halftime and finished the game with 12 points and three rebounds. “I don’t want Adonis taking a backseat,” said Pastner. “He’s good enough to kick butt. And he turned it on in the second half. He can be as good a defender and as good a rebounder as he wants to be.”
If the early start, or the step up in competition since their two exhibition games impacted the Tigers’ play, Black wasn’t letting on. “The season isn’t routine,” he emphasized after the game. “It’s not like we play every weekend at a certain time. You mix and match your schedule to accommodate different teams, and different styles. Last year we won 13 games decided by five points or less, and that gets us ready to play tough games in any situation.” (The Tigers will have a dramatic time change before their next three games, to be played next week in Maui.)
Black did enjoy the retro uniforms, part of the program’s nod to the university’s centennial in 2012. “We love these uniforms,” he said. “When we came back to the locker room, I said these should be our home uniforms for every game, the way we just won. If you’re from Memphis, you know about Larry Finch. He’s one of the best players to play here and probably the best coach.”
As the program looks back symbolically, Pastner likes what he sees when he looks forward. “We’re still relatively young,” he noted. “Let’s not forget that. This is one game, but we can’t get too high with the highs. Our next game [November 21st] is against a top-20 team, Michigan. We have to hang our hats on the defensive end, and get better at rebounding the ball. If we do that, we’ll be hard to beat.”