If you remain curious about the Penny Hardaway Experiment with Memphis Tiger basketball, you had 13,583 reasons Tuesday night to believe it's heading in the right direction. With South Dakota State in town — not so much a rival as an exotic outpost on the college basketball landscape — on a Tuesday night in early December, FedExForum welcomed more fans than attended any Tiger game during the 2017-18 season. The big crowd left happy, too, as the Tigers beat the Jackrabbits to end a two game losing streak and improve to 4-4 on the season.
Freshman guard Tyler Harris
hit four three-pointers and led the Tigers in scoring (along with senior guard Jeremiah Martin
) with 22 points. Harris also drew three charges, defensive stops that energized his new coach as a young team seeks cohesiveness and a playing style that, Hardaway believes, will yield more wins than losses.
"It's a huge win for us," said Hardaway after the game. "You gotta get the first one coming off the road. A three-headed monster: Mike Daum [18 points], David Jenkins , and Skyler Flatten . We knew what they were going to be, and they were as advertised. I'm proud of the guys for hanging in there. Guys got uncomfortable today and did things they weren't used to doing, and we came away with a great team victory."
As distant as South Dakota State may seem, the Jackrabbits have played longer seasons of late than Memphis, appearing in the NCAA tournament each of the last three years. They entered Tuesday's contest with a 7-2 record and riding a four-game winning streak. Daum is an All-America candidate who carried averages of 24.1 points and 11.2 rebounds to tip-off. The Tigers held him to 18 and 4, respectively, primarily by getting him into early foul trouble, an objective Hardaway acknowledged following the game. "To keep him below his averages, we had to get him out of the game," said Hardaway. "We planned to go at him on the post, and continue to put pressure on him."
came off the Memphis bench and scored 10 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and blocked four shots in 20 minutes to counter Daum's presence.
The Tigers fell behind early (10-5), but took the lead on a Kyvon Davenport
three-pointer six minutes into the game. They extended the lead to eight points (40-32) by halftime and never trailed in the second half. South Dakota State committed 23 turnovers and shot 45 percent from the field (more than half the Jackrabbits' shots were from three-point range). The Tigers shot 51 percent from the field and matched their own 17 turnovers with 17 assists (that ratio being an early-season concern).
"Coach Penny is never going to scoot down to our level," said freshman guard Alex Lomax
, who contributed 12 points in 29 minutes. "People are getting on the same page, even changing their games [to improve]."
"The teams we've played have helped point us in the right direction," said Hardaway. Eight games in, Memphis has already faced a pair of Top 25 teams and multiple programs that played in the NCAA tournament last March. The Tigers' next six games will be at FedExForum, starting with an old Conference USA rival — UAB — Saturday afternoon. (The Blazers beat Memphis last year in Birmingham.)
Their regular season having already reached the quarter pole, the Tigers have big-picture goals, but within a more narrow frame, one where progress can be more easily measured and quantified. Lomax summarized it nicely late Tuesday night: "We're trying to win the month of December."