This is what college basketball looks like come March. Memphis and UCF traded big punches early, then jabbed one another steadily for 35 minutes, the margin on the scoreboard for most of those minutes no more than three points. It was a contest to be expected from teams that consider themselves contenders for the American Athletic Conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth. Jimario Rivers
put back a Dedric Lawson miss to give the Tigers a 63-60 lead with 2:48 to play and junior guard Markel Crawford
followed with a steal and three-point play for just enough to extend the Tigers' winning streak to three games. The victory improves Memphis to 15-5 on the season and ties the Tigers with UCF at 5-2 in AAC play (the Knights are now 14-5).
"I was really impressed with our kids today," said Tiger coach Tubby Smith. "Especially banged up as we were today. [Rivers and Dedric Lawson each fell to the floor with what initially looked like serious injuries, only to return to the game.] They showed a lot of guts, toughness. We did the things we had to do at the end of the game to get the win: the stops, free throws."
Freshman forward K.J. Lawson
stuffed the stat sheet with 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, and a block. His younger brother was limited to just 11 first-half minutes by a pair of fouls, but finished the contest with 14 points and five rebounds. Dedric had his hands full at both ends with UCF center Tacko Fall, the 7'6" sophomore from Senegal. Fall scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, helping the Knights to a healthy 41-28 advantage on the glass, but the Tigers' defensive intensity proved to be the difference, forcing 16 turnovers, which led to 22 points.
Rivers and Crawford each scored 12 points for the Tigers, the latter hitting four consecutive free throws after being fouled and then shoved by Knight guard Matt Williams with 7:33 left in the game. (The foul shots gave the U of M a 56-49 lead at the time.) Crawford acknowledged he felt it was his job to "get in [Williams's] head," the senior having averaged 16.3 points per game for UCF entering Sunday's tilt.
As far as Fall was concerned, the Tigers recognized subtleties to their advantage, one being that Fall isn't a quick jumper (according to K.J. Lawson), another that he has trouble on his second jump for a rebound (according to Crawford). The Tigers ended up blocking more shots (four) than the Knights (three).
"We give up a lot of size, a lot of bulk," said Smith. "But we talk about overcoming obstacles. The greater the challenge, the greater the reward. You have to over-achieve when you're smaller. It's a mentality thing. They're fighters."
The Tigers hit 18 of 23 free throws and were moderate from both the three-point line (35.3 percent) and the field overall (41.1 percent). Percentages aside, it was a relentless approach — and a flexible approach — that prevailed.
"We tried a lot of different things offensively," said Smith. "But that's the versatility of the five guys who started. We also have some outstanding defenders, and that creates offensive opportunities, too."
The Tigers next travel to Philadelphia to face Temple Wednesday. They return to FedExForum next Saturday when East Carolina comes to town.