Today in Tulsa, The Memphis Tigers completed what amounts to a four-game message to the rest of Conference USA: Come get the championship.
Four days before the start of the C-USA tournament at FedExForum, the Tigers clinched the league's regular-season title outright with their fourth consecutive blowout victory. After falling to UTEP at home on February 18th, coach Josh Pastner ripped the players' names off their jerseys and sparked the most dominant two-week stretch of his team's season to date. Since the Miner upset, Memphis has beaten East Carolina by 23, Marshall by 20, UCF by 29 and now Tulsa by 12 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score. With the win, the Tigers finish the regular season with a record of 23-8 (13-3 in C-USA).
Sophomore guard Will Barton all but clinched the league's Player of the Year trophy. Barton became the first Tiger to score 30 points since Elliot Williams more than two years ago (January 16, 2010). He became the 47th Memphis player to surpass 1,000 points for his career, and only the ninth to do so in his first two seasons. (The previous eight: Win Wilfong, Larry Finch, Keith Lee, Elliot Perry, Anfernee Hardaway, Lorenzen Wright, Omar Sneed, and Darius Washington.) Barton is also the first Tiger to win the C-USA scoring title (18.7 points per game). Barton hit 12 of 17 shots, grabbed nine rebounds, dished out four assists, and picked up three steals.
Memphis raced out to an 18-5 lead despite an early scare when Barton went to the floor holding his left knee after converting a layup for the game's first points. The Golden Hurricane closed an 11-point deficit to three over the last 1:40 of the first half, entering the break down 37-34. But the Tigers roared out of halftime on a 21-4 run and coasted over the game's final 14 minutes. Joe Jackson added 16 points (hitting 8 of 9 free throws) and senior Wesley Witherspoon continued his late-career spurt with 13 points and nine rebounds. (Witherspoon is now 45 points from joining Barton in the 1,000-point club.)
The regular-season title is the U of M's first since 2009 (and first under Pastner). As the top seed in the C-USA tourney, the Tigers will take the floor for a quarterfinal game at 6:30 next Thursday night. With a win, they'd play in the earlier of two semifinal games Friday night.