Three days after a disappearing act at Tulsa, the American Athletic Conference's reigning Player of the Week reappeared Saturday at FedExForum. And how.
Junior Markel Crawford
poured in a career-high 30 points, made a key last-minute steal, and hit four free throws to seal an all-too-tight victory over the AAC's cellar-dwellers from South Florida. Crawford scored more points in the game's first 12 minutes (11) than he did in 34 (8) against the Golden Hurricane. He hit 10 of 17 shots from the field (5 of 10 from three-point range), pulled down seven rebounds, and had three assists and steals.
"Markel does the same thing after every game," said sophomore forward Dedric Lawson
, who stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five blocks. "He goes to the gym and gets shots, finds his routine. It paid off today."
Having struggled mightily in the rebounding department of late, the Tigers won the battle of the boards Saturday — against a bigger team — with 39 rebounds to the Bulls' 35. Junior Jimario Rivers
pulled down a season-high 11, but perhaps more impressive were the five "team rebounds," those that go unattributed, but mean a new possession for the Tigers. "One of our goals was to out-rebound South Florida, even though they're a bigger team," said Crawford. "If we're going to go far, we have to gang-rebound, go inside, be tough, put bodies on people."
Memphis led by eight at halftime (30-22), extended the lead to 14 (48-34) on a breakaway dunk by Crawford midway through the second half. But USF enjoyed a 7-0 run inside the five-minute mark and closed within two (56-54) when Ruben Guerrero slammed home an offensive rebound and converted a free throw after being fouled by Dedric Lawson.
USF inbounded the ball after a timeout with 44 seconds to play and down just three points (57-54). But Crawford tapped the ball away from Bulls guard Geno Thorpe and converted a pair of free throws after Thorpe fouled him as he rose to the rim. The points proved decisive in helping the Tigers improve to 13-5 and 3-2 in AAC play. USF has now lost five in a row and is 6-10 (0-5).
Thorpe and Malik Fitts led the Bulls with 12 points each.
"We have to play better offensively," said Tiger coach Tubby Smith after his 570th career win. "Their zone gave us all kinds of problems. K.J. [Lawson] struggled [1 for 11 from the field], but I can't say enough about Markel. He stepped up, huge buckets, the steal there at the end. He and Jimario really played well, and we needed them to. Teams are going to focus on Dedric, try to take him out of the game."
USF played a zone defense throughout the game, changing from a 2-3 at times to 1-3-1. If Crawford doesn't hit from the outside, the Tigers find themselves hamstrung against zones. (The rest of the team was one for 11 from three-point range Saturday.)
"We had good looks," said Smith. "Probably fatigue hit us again. I've never coached a team that played a perfect game. But we got the win. I thought we defended extremely well, and we rebounded better."
All five Memphis starters played at least 35 minutes, and Smith did not make a substitution in the second half. All the more reason the Tigers needed a player with Crawford's recent credentials to make the difference he did.