Not since 2003 — when they played in The Pyramid — had the Memphis Tigers' drawn as large a crowd (of players) for Senior Day as they did in today's regular-season finale at FedExForum. The pregame ceremony stirred 18,289 Tiger fans as it always does, and three of those seniors — Charles Holt, Stan Simpson, and Ferrakohn Hall — received a farewell ovation unlike any they'll ever experience again. For the fourth senior, though, it must have seemed like your average home game . . . just turned up a notch.
"It was the perfect day for me," said that senior, forward D.J. Stephens. "To have all four of us on the court near the end of the game, and getting the win."
The Tigers allowed an overmatched UAB team within a single point (45-44) before erupting for 41 points in a 12-minute span to secure their 27th win of the season and complete a 16-game whitewashing of Conference USA. The win ends the 18th and final regular season for Memphis as members of C-USA. They'll travel to Tulsa next week for the league tournament, opening with a quarterfinal game on Thursday.
"To go 16-0 in league play is special," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after his 102nd win as Memphis coach. "You don't take that for granted. Tremendous win. And the way the season started, with lots of darts and arrows being thrown at us. You appreciate this; it isn't a birthright. We have tremendous young men, academically, socially, and athletically."
Junior guard Joe Jackson did all he could to steal the spotlight from Stephens, falling but a rebound shy of the program's fourth triple-double. Teammate Chris Crawford (who scored a game-high 20 points) pointed out that Jackson wasn't all that far from a quadruple-double: 17 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds, and six steals. "Joe was awesome, with a capital A," said Pastner. "He dominated on 50-50 balls today, and that's what this team is about."
Rounding out the guard-dominated performance for Memphis was junior Geron Johnson with 19 points, four assists, and three steals. As a team, the Tigers picked up 22 assists on the 30 field goals they converted, a percentage that keeps the head coach smiling.
As for Stephens, the Texas native finished one of the most unlikely seasons in Memphis history by scoring 13 points (on five of six shooting) and grabbing eight rebounds and three steals. After the final buzzer, Stephens delivered a parting kiss . . . to the rim on his team's side of the floor.
"Everybody kept telling me to kiss the tiger [logo at midcourt], but that's been done before," said Stephens. "A couple of days ago, Shaq [Goodwin] jumped to see how high his head could get. I went right after him, and when I jumped, I actually looked down at the rim a bit. Man, that was kind of cool. I just wanted to be remembered for something different."
The win ends an annual series between Memphis and UAB that dates back to the 1990-91 season, a series the Tigers have dominated (35-10), but one special to fans of both programs for the connection to the late Hall of Fame coach, Gene Bartow. Did the meaning of the game — and his unique senior moment — make for an emotional afternoon for Stephens?
"I was actually more happy than anything," said Stephens. "To be able to walk out there with the people who brought me into the world, and my girlfriend . . . my future wife. She's pregnant, so in a way she walked out there with our child. For them to be with me in a moment like that, it means a lot."