Thursday night's tilt at FedExForum marked the precise tipping point to the Tigers' 2014-15 regular season. Fifteen games played prior to Cincinnati's arrival, and fifteen games now remaining. If there can be a breakthrough game in mid-January, a win over the program's most historic league rival is a good place to start.
Sophomore forward Austin Nichols led the way (again) with 17 points, eight rebounds, and three thorough blocks of Bearcat shots. But facing one of the most bruising teams in the American Athletic Conference, Memphis welcomed the continued rebirth of point guard Kedren Johnson (13 points and five assists in a season-high 34 minutes off the bench) and the lunch-pail work inside of senior Calvin Godfrey (eight points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes as a starter). Avery Woodson hit four of seven three-point attempts and scored 14 points in 38 minutes to help the Tigers improve to 10-6 (3-2 in the AAC).
"We did a good job defensively," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner. "For us to win games, we need to make some threes. And we made some shots. Avery really helped loosen things up for us. And I thought Calvin Godfrey's energy and toughness were infectious. His warrior-like mentality was infectious throughout the game. Cincinnati is not a good, but a great defensive team. We had to make shots to beat them."
The win is the Tigers' first over Cincinnati since December 29, 2008, a long dry spell in a series that originated in 1968. (The teams didn't play for four seasons until joining the AAC before the 2013-14 campaign.) The Bearcats are the highest-ranked team (RPI: 30) Memphis has beaten this season.
The lead changed hands seven times in the first half before the Tigers pulled away on a 9-2 run to close the period. Woodson drained a three-pointer for a 26-22 lead, then Godfrey followed with a dribble-drive after a missed free throw was deflected his way by Nichols.
Cincinnati closed the lead to one (33-32) over the first four minutes of the second half, but the Bearcats never regained the lead. Another Woodson trey extended the Tiger lead to six (45-39) with 9:01 to play, and Nichols hit back-to-back field goals to extend the lead to 12 (53-41) with just over five minutes left. Nichols has now scored at least ten points in ten consecutive games.
But it was Johnson's second straight double-digit outing that had Pastner most effusive. "Kedren's played well," said the coach. "He's kept a good attitude, he hasn't sulked or felt sorry for himself. He's done his job, and he stayed ready. When he got his number called, he took advantage of it. It's not easy for him. He didn't play a lot earlier in the season. You have to give him a lot of credit."
"I'm just trying to keep improving on what I've been doing," said Johnson. "I'm just getting a better feel for the guys. You're always going to have adversity; that's life. It's never going to be a perfect day. You just have to stay positive. The other option is being miserable all the time."
Johnson delivered a pair of exceptional entry passes that Nichols converted, and delivered a spinning, 360-degree layup himself to the delight of the crowd of 14,916.
Memphian Octavius Ellis (Cincinnati's top scorer) was held to two points, missing four of his five field-goal attempts. The Bearcats as a team shot 39.1 percent while the Tigers hit 46.9 percent of their shots. For the 15th time in 16 Tiger games this season, the scoring margin was in double figures.
"Every game is important," said Woodson when asked if this could be considered a statement win for his team. "No game is more important than the next one. We're just trying to get better. We're still climbing a ladder."