Fueled by a resurgent band of reserves, the Tigers found themselves within five points (51-46) of a top-25 team with a little over 10 minutes to play Tuesday night at FedExForum. Raynere Thornton, Kareem Brewton,
and David Nickelberry
in particular had sparked a comeback that shaved the Tigers' halftime deficit (40-29) in half. Three days after a humiliating defeat at East Carolina, Memphis had an opportunity to offset that loss and perhaps establish a springboard for the regular season's stretch run.
Alas, Wichita State surged over those final 10 minutes, enjoying a 17-4 run — with Memphis starters on the floor — to secure its 18th win of the season, improving the Shockers to 8-3 in the American Athletic Conference (18-5 overall). Austin Reaves hit five of nine shots from three-point range and led the visitors with 22 points (almost triple his average of 7.5). All-conference candidate Landry Shamet hit four of seven three-point attempts and added 20 points to help Wichita State win its first game in Memphis since 1983.
The loss for Memphis — its fourth in five games — drops the Tigers to 14-10 and 5-6 in AAC competition.
"I thought our guys battled back, and did some things well," said Memphis coach Tubby Smith. "But we obviously didn't do enough well, especially from a rebounding standpoint. And a defensive standpoint. Once again, the three-point shot hurt us. But our bench was outstanding. We have some things to work with."
Three days after contributing only four field goals at East Carolina, the Tiger reserves combined to score 40 points, led by Thornton (11 points, five of six from the field in 29 minutes) and Brewton (12 points, four of seven from the field in 28 minutes). Freshman David Nickelberry played 28 minutes — his most since December 23rd — and contributed eight points, four rebounds, and two assists.
But the Tiger starters were a quiet quintet. Hampered in part by foul trouble (Kyvon Davenport, Mike Parks, and Jeremiah Martin each had three), the starters combined to score only five field goals (a third of the bench production). Martin scored 16 points, primarily by getting to the foul line, where he made 12 of 14 shots. [None of the starters attended the postgame press conference.]
"[The starters] struggled, from the beginning," said Smith. "[Wichita State] made it a point to take Jeremiah out of the game, being physical with him, making him work hard to get the ball. Mike Parks had a little foul trouble and wasn't defending like he should. Jimario Rivers wasn't going to the boards like he should."
Smith stressed rebounding to his team before the game, only to see the Shockers pull down 39 (14 offensive) to the Tigers' 28. Wichita State shot 42 percent from the field but took 19 more shots (64-45) than the Tigers.
"We're playing better teams," noted Smith, who emphasized there's much still to gain with seven regular-season games left on the schedule. "We're 5-6, and we had a chance to be 6-4 Saturday. We knew it would be a mountain to climb, beating Wichita State. I saw a ray of hope, particularly in our three freshmen."
The Tigers will host UCF Sunday, the Knights having won their previous game in Orlando on January 3rd. They'll then play three of four games away from FedExForum (two against teams Memphis has beaten: Tulane and UConn).
"I see a lot of opportunities for us to improve," emphasized Smith. "That's about as well as our bench has ever played. That's what gives me a real belief. Now I don't mind subbing."