There can be value in exceeding expectations. Few among the crowd of 12,688 at FedExForum Tuesday expected a team built largely around an 18-year-old freshman (the Tigers' Dedric Lawson
) to compete with a Final Four contender built around a preseason All-America (the Sooners' Buddy Hield). Had the schedule-makers at ESPN anticipated a clash with 10 lead changes and a major upset bid, tipoff would not have taken place during happy hour (4 p.m. locally).
Throw the expectations out.
With Lawson seizing a starring role (22 points and 15 rebounds, despite being limited by four fouls), Memphis took the lead with just over 1:30 left to play (on a tip-in by Lawson), only to concede consecutive field goals by the Sooners, including a killer three-point shot from the right corner by Jordan Woodard that allowed the visitors to escape in their season-opener. Ricky Tarrant and Avery Woodson missed a pair of three-point attempts that would have closed the lead to a single point. Down four points with less than 10 seconds to play, Lawson was fouled in attempting a three-pointer, but missed all three free throws. The loss drops Memphis to 1-1 for the season.
"It's tough to lose a game like that," said Tiger forward Trahson Burrell
, who contributed 10 points and six rebounds off the bench. "Everybody gave all they had, but we just had a couple of let-downs there at the end. We're still feeling each other out."
"There's a lot to build on," added junior guard Avery Woodson
, who hit four three pointers and scored 12 points for Memphis.
The Tigers shot poorly from the field at the game's outset, but kept in the game primarily through Lawson's aggressive play on offense. He hit nine of 12 free throws before the trio of misses near the game's end. In total, the Tigers hit 18 foul shots . . . but missed 13.
Hield played like the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, scoring 30 points and hitting four from long range. Woodard added 15 and Isaiah Cousins 13 for Oklahoma, a team aiming to dethrone Kansas atop its league.
Among the standouts for Memphis was sophomore guard Markel Crawford.
Tasked with guarding Hield, Crawford still managed to have his best offensive game "since last February" according to Memphis coach Josh Pastner. The Melrose alum threw down a pair of dunks on consecutive Sooner turnovers late in the second half to give the Tigers a 66-64 lead. He finished the contest with 12 points and two steals in 27 minutes.
Like Lawson, Shaq Goodwin
accumulate four fouls and had to sit for an extended stretch of the second half. He still managed seven points, seven rebounds, and five blocks, not to mention some crowd-lifting gestures as the U of M continued to wrestle a national heavyweight for the lead.
"Our guys battled," said Pastner. "They played the right way. We had some chances. I love how we played. We continue to get better, the more we have game experience. Even the veterans. They're playing unselfish. We have to be emotionally balanced; it's a long season."
As for expectations, the Tiger players have their own, and they're unrelated to polls or prognosticators. "We're a better team than last year," emphasized Woodson. "We play a different style of offense. We have some talented freshmen ready to contribute."
"We were more of a stand-still team last year," said Burrell. "We attack and drive now, attack and kick. Our coaches might look at the media, blogs, things like that. But we don't. We just play."
And their early impression of Dedric Lawson? "He comes to practice in attack mode," said Woodson. "We knew the kind of player he is," added Burrell. "We look for him to step up and do what he did today. It didn't come as a surprise."
Woodson noted that the crowd — roughly two-thirds capacity at FedExForum — was the most energetic he's experienced as a Tiger (last season being his first). However many of them return for Thursday night's game against Grambling State, you can count on this: expectations will be different.