Joe Jackson's first jump shot was nothing but net. Shaq Goodwin scored on a put-back in traffic. And, of course, D.J. Stephens made the banners in FedExForum ripple with a breakaway dunk from above. Before a crowd of 15,341 could dry themselves off for the U of M's Conference USA opener, the Tigers had a 39-12 lead over the East Carolina Pirates (a team that entered the game with nine wins, having lost by just six to North Carolina).
Then Shamarr Bowden happened. And Robert (son of Ralph) Sampson happened. And 21 straight points later, the Tigers' lead was merely 39-33. Over the game's final 17 minutes, ECU would get no closer than five points, but the defending C-USA champs were forced to play, yes, a 40-minute game.
"We're not playing high school teams," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after his team completed the schizophrenic victory. "This is Division I college basketball, and it's a game of runs. We're not a finished product. We got sloppy, didn't keep it simple. If you don't take away the three-point shot [East Carolina made nine of 21 attempts], a game can change like that. We have to get better at protecting leads."
Jackson scored a game-high 15 points, his tenth straight outing with double figures. Stephens grabbed 11 rebounds, blocked three shots, and scored six points in 23 minutes. Goodwin was the only other Tiger in double figures on the scoreboard, with 12. The Tiger offense played a choppy game, with only 12 assists on 28 made field goals. Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton, and Tarik Black combined for 21 points off the bench.
While the Tigers were all smiles after the final buzzer, talk centered on that 21-point ECU run that bridged halftime. "When we get a lead, we have to be able to sustain it," said Jackson. "Keep playing hard. It's an adjustment we have to make, and we'll work on it."
Added Goodwin, "That game was really physical. We know we have the quick guards, but we have to have a big-man presence inside. [Memphis outscored the Pirates 40-16 in the paint.] We have to stay locked in and not let teams get back in the game with the three-point shot."
"We lost our man late in the shot clock," noted Adonis Thomas, who was held to seven points in 30 minutes (on two-of-eight shooting). "Gotta stay focused."
Even with the lengthy run, East Carolina's two stars weren't allowed to break out, Miguel Paul finishing with 10 points and Maurice Kemp with 11.
"We took our foot off the pedal," said Pastner. "And we can't do that. We're everyone's World Series, everyone's Super Bowl. But in the end, we got the win. Better to be 1-0 in the league than 0-1."
The Tigers travel to UAB for their next game Saturday night.