This was more than a stumble. Mark today’s Tiger loss down as an all-out face-plant in front of 16,427 friendly fans at FedExForum. Grade: F.
“I was disappointed with our approach,” said coach Josh Pastner after his team’s first loss in five games. “We got up 9-0, and we should have been up more. We didn’t take advantage. We had opportunities to make some runs and we didn’t get the job done. When you lose, the coach deserves most of the criticism and blame. I’ve been telling the guys, for us to mature as a team, we have to be able to handle success [the Tigers had won 13 of their last 15 games]. We are not out of the woods. Nobody played well today, except Tarik Black.”
Entering today’s game, UTEP had not won a road game in Conference USA play (0-5). The Miners hadn’t played in a week, since beating Tulane in overtime at El Paso. (Remember, Memphis beat Tulane in New Orleans by 18 points three days ago.) The visitors didn’t score in the first seven minutes of this afternoon’s game and trailed 19-6 with 7:36 to play before halftime. Behind a 16-9 run to finish the game, though, UTEP leaves Memphis with a third straight win.
“We let one slip,” said Black. “We have to bounce back. You can’t really worry about how damaging [this loss] might be. You’ve got to keep moving forward. We have to put teams away once we get up early, and we didn’t do that today. The reason why? I can’t tell you.”
Black scored a career-high 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season. But while the sophomore center hit 10 of 13 shots from the field, his teammates were merely 8 for 35 (23 percent).
Memphis led by five points with 6:40 to play and never trailed until Miner forward Cedrick Lang hit a pair of free throws for a 57-55 UTEP lead with 1:19 to play. Jacques Streeter hit two more free throws and Memphis native Gabriel McCulley hit one of two to give the Miners a 60-55 lead with 23 seconds to play.
Will Barton hit a three-pointer from the top of the arc to close the gap to 60-58 with 17.8 seconds left. When Joe Jackson tipped the in-bounds pass off a Miner player with 13 seconds to go, Memphis called timeout to set up a play to tie or win. Pastner called for a screen from Chris Crawford and a curl to the basket for Will Barton, but Barton instead shook his defender and attempted a three-pointer as time expired. The shot was just enough off target to send Barton to the floor in agony. The Tigers’ leading scorer this season, he finished the game with nine points, having missed six of nine shots from the field.
“The challenge is getting our focus back, and maintaining it,” said Barton. “We got a little too complacent. We gotta get back to what works. This is one of the most demoralizing losses, because of how well we were playing. We let up a lot of ground with this loss.”
The Miners entered the game with an RPI of 189, almost triple the highest number of any previous opponent to have beaten Memphis (UCF). They hit four of six three-pointers in the second half and were led by Michael Perez with 15 points. UTEP can consider the win a measure of payback for the loss they absorbed to Memphis in the C-USA championship game last March in El Paso, a defeat that kept the Miners out of the NCAA tournament.
As for the Tigers, they find themselves precariously close to the same position they were in last March, in which a C-USA tourney championship was required for a ticket to the big dance. Now 19-8, they host East Carolina next Wednesday, then finish regular-season play with three real tests (at Marshall, UCF, and at Tulsa).
“Coming into today’s game, we were in a great position for the NCAA tournament,” said Pastner. “But we took some steps deeper into the woods. Until we get closer to the light, we’re not in. Our margin for error now is slim to none. We stubbed our toe.”
A stubbed toe and a face-plant. The madness awaits.