With a Big East vibe filling FedExForum for the first time since Wednesday’s culture-changing announcement, the Tigers played as though they needed to prove there is indeed a gap between Memphis basketball at its best and Conference USA. Facing a league rival that had won four of its last five games — including an upset of first-place Southern Miss three nights ago — Memphis hit six three-pointers in the game’s first 10 minutes, led 29-11 with eight minutes to play before halftime, and relegated the league’s preseason Player of the Year to bench duty in the second half.
The Tigers hit a total of 14 three-pointers for the game (two shy of the program record), with Chris Crawford leading the way (4) followed by Antonio Barton (3), Will Barton, Wesley Witherspoon, and D.J. Stephens (2 each), and Joe Jackson (1). Overall, the Tigers shot 53 percent from the floor and held UAB to 34 percent. Blazer star Cameron Moore made only one of six shots and played only two minutes in the second half.
Tiger coach Josh Pastner insisted his team needs improvement, but couldn’t identify a specific area tonight. (UAB grabbed exactly one offensive rebound.) “I’m proud of being plus-13 on the glass,” he said. “Tonight we shot the ball well, but they weren’t forced. We got our shots off of what we run in practice. Drive, kick, and make the extra pass. We had 18 assists on 26 made field goals. We’ve had some carry-over, and games like this give you confirmation.”
When asked if the Big East news helped boost his team’s play, Pastner said the league move seems like it’s “an eternity away,” and that his focus remains solely on the next game at hand and winning, yes, the Conference USA championship.
Will Barton and Crawford tied for the scoring lead with 16 points. Barton also led Memphis with nine rebounds. He acknowledged that shooting like 17,308 fans saw tonight is contagious. “Running, smiling, slapping high fives . . . when we have that type of energy, we’re hard to beat,” he said. “Everyone’s sharing the ball, no one cares who’s scoring the most. We’re getting under guys on defense, rebounding. When someone’s hot, it makes me want to keep getting him the ball, and when your opportunity comes, you feel more confident. Hey, I can hit ’em, too.”
In addition to his shooting, Crawford dished out four assists (without a turnover) and picked up five steals, a new career high. He also relished the shooting contagion. “When we see one person make one, we all feel like we need to,” he said. “It always rubs off. We love each other, and feed off each other.”
Jackson and Witherspoon each contributed nine points in 22 minutes off the bench. The pair seems to have embraced roles as super-subs. (They combined for a total of five points in the win at UAB on January 7th.)
In the midst of a five-game “don’t stumble” stretch of their season, the Tigers (18-7) travel to Tulane to face the Green Wave next Wednesday. They remain tied atop C-USA with Southern Miss, each team 8-2 in league play.