The Tigers renewed one of their oldest rivalries today at FedExForum, only to receive a humbling reminder that life in the American Athletic Conference — with friends like Cincinnati — includes bumps and bruises on the way to March. The Bearcats were tougher, bigger, and even played faster than the pace-pushing Tigers, winning their 13th game of the season behind 18 points from Sean Kilpatrick and a muscle-flexing game from senior forward Justin Jackson: 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 blocked shots.
As for the home team, shots didn't fall, particularly from long range, making the outcome all too predictable for coach Josh Pastner. "I've said this before, and I'll say it all season: When our four senior guards play poorly collectively — and they did today — we're going to struggle. We put a lot of eggs in their basket."
Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford, and Michael Dixon combined to shoot 2-for-17 from three-point range. While Jackson scored 13 points to lead the Tigers, his three backcourt running mates combined to miss 28 of the 36 shots they tossed at the rim. "If you don't make shots," said Pastner, "it sucks the life out of you. If we make some threes, we're talking about a different situation."
The Tigers lifted a raucous crowd of 17,191 early in the game, with Johnson and Jackson delivering dunks on the way to an early 8-4 Memphis lead. The Tigers maintained the lead for most of the first half, until the Bearcats went on an 8-2 run over the final four minutes before the break. Despite shooting 33 percent over the game's first 20 minutes, Cincinnati led, 27-26, at halftime. The Bearcats scored 10 of those points on second-chance opportunities, relentlessly hitting the offensive glass.
With Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols struggling inside, Pastner turned to David Pellom and the senior transfer showed the energy he's come to personify for this veteran team. He scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in 23 minutes, but went to the bench with four fouls and more than 10 minutes left in the game. Cincinnati stretched a five-point lead to 10 with just under eight minutes left, and the Tigers never again pulled within a single possession. Goodwin finished with six points and six rebounds in 35 minutes and Nichols didn't get off the bench in the second half. (Nichols is officially in the first slump of his college career. The freshman from Briarcrest hasn't grabbed more than three rebounds six consecutive games.)
"They wanted it more," said Johnson after the game. "They came here and took it from us, got a big win. It's a let-down. We try to take care of business. But we'll get back in the lab. We've got to keep shooting. This game is over with."
The loss will likely drop the 18th-ranked Tigers (now 10-3) out of the Top 20, with the reigning national champion Louisville Cardinals up next on the schedule (Thursday in Kentucky).
"It's a game we can learn from," said Jackson. "It's just one loss. We work too hard not to get better. They did a great job, just stopped us on offense. Cincinnati's a tough-nosed team; you could tell the way they crashed the boards. They were talking on the bench and really wanted to beat us. I feel like, as a unit, we didn't really want to beat them. Like we had something against them. Now, we've got a chip back on our shoulder."
A Tiger team lauded for its depth in November was reduced to six players in the second half against Cincinnati. (Heralded freshman Nick King played a total of three minutes and didn't attempt a field goal.) Despite five of those six players being seniors, the U of M was overmatched by its old rival from the Metro Conference and Conference USA. Great to see you! Good riddance.
"It's no time for a pity party," said Pastner. "Cincinnati has a great team, a great program. We've got to get ready for Thursday."