The Tigers cruised to an easy win over the Gamecocks tonight in front of a sparse crowd at FedExForum, taking what amounts to a midseason reboot after an undressing at the hands of Gonzaga last Saturday. With 12 points, seven rebounds, and seven blocks, sophomore forward Austin Nichols finished in the neighborhood of the program's fourth triple-double. Shaq Goodwin led Memphis with 16 points (his most in more than two weeks) and Nick King scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench. Remarkably, it was just the second game this season the Tigers' preseason "big three" each scored in double figures (and the first time since November 28th).
The victory improves the Tiger record to 14-8 and gives them a modicum of momentum heading into the regular season's nine-game home stretch.
"We've come a long way in valuing the ball," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner of his team's 20 assists and only three turnovers. "That's gotta continue in our next nine games of regular-season conference basketball for us to have a shot, to keep winning."
The coach was thoroughly impressed with Nichols, particularly his performance on the defensive end of the floor. "He's improved immensely on the defensive end," he said. "He's a great defender. And last year he was an awful defender. Teams' number-one game plan was, 'How do we attack Austin?' He's become what D.J. Stephens was. I'm really proud of him." Nichols finished two shy of the Memphis record for blocks in a game and now has 71 for the season. (The single-season record is 107 by David Vaughn in 1993-94.)
"Coach broke it down for us," explained Nichols. "He said if the season ended today, we wouldn't make the tournament. So we have to make a huge push, these last nine games. Finish strong. He also emphasized the top five teams in the conference get a bye in the [American Athletic Conference] tournament. Our intensity [tonight] helped us out, then we were just having fun."
The fun included a 10-point lead at halftime (34-24) and a dominating performance in the paint, the Tigers outscoring the Gamecocks 46-8 near the basket. Trahson Burrell started and scored 13 points, the junior's most since December 17th. Kedren Johnson added 10, his third double-figure game of the season.
King discounted the two-game interruption to conference play, which ends Saturday when Temple comes to town. "We don't take these as conference games or not," he said. "Just the next game on the schedule. I'm just going out there calm and relaxed, doing what I can to help the team." The pride of East High has reached double figures in scoring in three straight games after sitting through the January 24th contest at Tulane.
Malcolm Drumright played all 40 minutes for Jacksonville State and led the visitors with 12 points.
Saturday's tip-off with Temple is scheduled for noon. The Owls beat USF tonight for their fourth straight win to improve to 16-7. Temple and Memphis each have three conference losses.