It felt like the Tiger basketball season began Saturday afternoon at FedExForum.
Playing in front of their biggest — certainly their loudest — crowd of the season (announced attendance: 9,424), the Tigers erased a nine-point deficit over the last 17 minutes against an old rival they hadn't seen in more than three years. "We needed every person screaming and hollering," said Memphis coach Tubby Smith after his team improved to 7-2 for the season. "That's the kind of crowd we need."
Sophomore forward Dedric Lawson
played like the All-America candidate he's becoming, scoring 24 points, pulling down 10 rebounds, and blocking eight shots. The younger of the team's Lawson brothers came within two blocks of the program's fourth triple-double and merely one block of the Tigers' single-game record of nine (held by Keith Lee and David Vaughn). Better yet, Lawson avoided foul trouble against the physical UAB front line of Chris Cokley and William Lee, not being whistled until more than 13 minutes had expired in the second half. When asked how a player blocks eight shots without committing fouls, Lawson emphasized his approach from the weak side, and his ability to time a block attempt for after the ball has left a shooter's hands.
The Blazers (now 5-5) led 29-25 at halftime and extended their lead to 36-27 over the first three minutes of the second half. But the Tigers managed a few consecutive defensive stops, allowing them to begin a lengthy run that swung the score by 16 points in their favor. Freshman swingman K.J. Lawson
gave Memphis its first lead of the half (48-46) with a short jump-hook at the 8:05 mark.
A two-minute sequence that began with just under six minutes to play swung the game the Tigers' way for good. Dedric Lawson converted a driving layup for a 52-49 lead and the Tigers forced a 10-second violation upon the Blazers' inbounding the ball. Junior guard Markel Crawford
converted a layup (54-49) and Dedric Lawson blocked a UAB attempt, then followed with a jumper from the right elbow for a seven-point Tiger cushion. UAB never again closed within five points.
Crawford finished the game with 16 points and was one of four Tigers (also Jeremiah Martin
and the Lawson brothers) to play at least 37 minutes. "We gotta do what we have to do to win," said Smith. "These guys are playing well together. We need to get some more out of Chad [Rykhoek], Craig [Randall], and Christian [Kessee]. When we get guys in there, though, they need to be productive."
The Tigers managed to outscore a bigger team in the paint (40-28) and contributed only eight turnovers (with 14 assists on 22 field goals). Cokley led UAB with 16 points, but the Blazers shot merely 35.7 percent for the game. Memphis converted 39.3 percent from the field. Both teams were a woeful two for 12 from three-point range.
The win is the Tigers' 16th straight over the program founded by former Tiger coach Gene Bartow. The teams will meet again next season in Birmingham. UAB is among the favorites this season in Conference USA. For the Tigers' current players, it was their first taste of a regional rivalry. But Crawford recognized a difference: "It's as loud as it's been in here in a long time, so thanks to Tiger Nation for coming out."
The U of M returns to action Tuesday night when Monmouth visits FedExForum. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m.