Calvin Godfrey's night began with a salute all his own, the Tigers' lone senior marching to the center of the court at FedExForum for a standing ovation from the largest crowd (15,784) to watch the U of M this season. Godfrey's night ended, alas, with the reserve forward hunched over, a solitary figure on the Tiger bench, his head buried in his jersey. Another dispiriting night in the lives of the 2014-15 Memphis Tigers.
When Nick King's three-point attempt — from well beyond the top of the arc — bounced awry at the end of overtime, the Tigers fell to 17-12 and suffered their sixth loss at home, the program's most since the winter of 2004-05. For the second time in three nights, Memphis battled a first-place team from the American Athletic Conference, though without star forward Austin Nichols for virtually the entire second half. When Tiger guard Avery Woodson buried a trey to give the U of M a 39-34 lead just 46 seconds into the second half, Nichols was on the floor under the Tulsa basket, writhing in pain after falling awkwardly to the floor with an opposing player, re-injuring his right ankle. (Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after the game that Nichols will likely be sidelined through the AAC tournament in mid-March.)
Nichols's supporting cast played valiantly without him. Junior forward Trahson Burrell converted a short field goal following a rebound with 23 seconds left in regulation play to tie the game at 66 and force overtime. Behind the shooting of Rashad Ray (18 points and four three-pointers), the Golden Hurricane erased a nine-point deficit over the game's final seven minutes before Burrell's put-back. Burrell and Shaq Goodwin, it should be noted, missed free throws inside the final three minutes that could have been the difference. Overall, the Tigers made but 13 of 24 foul shots.
Shaquille Harrison keyed Tulsa's overtime play with a three pointer and driving layup to give the visitors a 74-69 lead with 35 seconds left. Tiger point guard Kedren Johnson buried a three-pointer with 18 seconds showing on the clock and Tulsa was unable to get the ball in bounds, which set up the final play and King's heave to end the night.
"He was wide open at the top of the key," said Burrell after the loss, which drops Memphis to 9-7 in AAC play. "We're gonna live and die with a shot like that. Especially by Nick, because he's a good shooter. We wish it had gone in. But everybody's satisfied with that shot. These are the worst games to lose, by a last-second shot."
"My heart dropped when I saw Austin go down," added Burrell. "We love him. Everybody knows he's a big part of our team. We'll just pray for a speedy recovery."
Harrison led Tulsa with 23 points, while Goodwin paced the Tigers with 17 in 44 minutes on the floor. The Tigers outrebounded the Golden Hurricane, 41-29, and grabbed 18 offensive boards, but they were outscored in the paint, 38-30, and allowed 16 points off turnovers, including four in the span of 10 seconds late in the second half that shaved a 60-51 Memphis lead to just five points.
"I can't be mad at our effort," said Goodwin. "We had a look at the end to win it. You gotta live with those results. We could have shot a whole lot better from the free throw line. That's on us as players. Regardless, we had a chance to win. Just came up a little short."
On a night the 1984-85 Tigers were honored as part of the 30th anniversary of their Final Four run, the current Tigers found themselves on the wrong side of momentum once again when the game hung in the balance. (Just as the current Tigers missed their big guy in Nichols, Keith Lee was conspicuously absent among his former teammates when they were saluted at halftime.) "We played our butts off," said Pastner in assessing his team's performance. "I feel awful that we couldn't come away with a win. Especially the last home game. In the past, there have been times when it's snowballed on us. But we've found ways to keep fighting. It's obviously tough when Austin goes down. I know injuries are part of the game, so it's not an excuse. Austin is so unselfish, so positive. So it's a double-whammy. It kills you. His great attitude, plus his play."
Johnson scored 13 points and was one of three Tigers with eight rebounds (also Burrell and King). Burrell scored 12 off the bench.
"The law of averages hasn't worked out for us this year," said Pastner, "but it will. I love this group. We've gotta find a way to dig in and get a win on Thursday and a win on Sunday."
The coach acknowledged six home losses were never part of the plan, and emphasized that better days are ahead. "It's been one of those years," he said. "Playing with a new group of guys. We probably over-scheduled at the start of the year. We've gotten so much better, though. It's just one of those years."
NOTE: The March 5th issue of the Flyer will include a cover story on the 1984-85 Tigers. The paper hits the streets on Wednesday, March 4th.