"I watch a lot of Penny Hardaway highlights." — Memphis guard Antwann Jones
During one of his first media sessions as Tiger coach, Penny Hardaway was asked a question nearly impossible to answer: Among current players, who reminds Hardaway of himself? Hardaway grinned and tilted his head, but didn't dodge the question. He went with freshman guard Antwann Jones
Wednesday night at FedExForum, the pupil from Orlando showed flashes of the master who once owned Orlando as an All-Star with the Magic. Making his first college start, Jones scored 13 points, grabbed five rebounds, handed out six assists, and blocked two shots in 25 minutes on the floor. Jones had three assists over the game's final four minutes to help Memphis pull away and improve to 6-5 for the season.
"Being in the starting lineup really energized [Antwann]," said Hardaway after the win. "He was really focused, and made plays defensively and at the offensive end. When you have an emotional player like Antwann, you just have to continue to talk to him in practice. That's who he is. And that's why it's taken him a while [to get his first start]. He wasn't emotionally into it. I like this side of him, when he's happy. He has vision, a god-given ability to see the floor."
Four days after an emotional loss to Tennessee in front of a packed house, the Tigers struggled to find any rhythm in front of 13,599 fans, their fourth of seven consecutive home games. There were 10 lead changes before halftime. The Trojans hit seven of their first 11 shots from three-point range, but the Tigers commanded the glass with 28 rebounds to Little Rock's 11 over the game's first 20 minutes. A Jones block of a layup attempt by 6'10" Trojan center Nikola Maric was followed by an Isaiah Maurice
dunk to give the Tigers a 10-point lead shortly before the break.
But the lead changed hands six more times in the second half. Trojan guard Rayjon Tucker converted a three-point play to give Little Rock an 86-84 lead with just under four minutes to play. (Tucker finished with a game-high 29 points, nine more than his average.) But Jones answered with a layup and found Jeremiah Martin
near the basket for another that put Memphis up for good, 88-86. Martin finished with 22 points, matching the senior's season high.
Senior forward Kyvon Davenport
scored only three points over the game's first 28 minutes, but came alive down the stretch to post his fourth double-double (15 points and 15 rebounds) of the season. "I got off to a bad start," acknowledged Davenport. "My mind wasn't in the right place. But I got stronger in the second half, got some rebounds to help my team."
Freshman guard Tyler Harris
hit four three-pointers and scored 14 points for Memphis. Fellow freshman Alex Lomax
came off the bench for the first time and contributed six assists in 20 minutes.
With conference play looming — the Tigers face Wichita State to open American Athletic Conference play on January 3rd — any win is welcome to Hardaway, but Wednesday's came with more lessons on areas the team must address for sustained success. "Our transition defense was horrible," said the rookie coach. "We work on this stuff, but it doesn't look like it. Two guards back. We have to carry it from practice to a game. It's like they don't believe it. This is Division 1 college basketball. They have to do what we tell them."
The Tigers return to FedExForum Saturday to face Tennessee State, the third and final opponent from the Volunteer State on the Memphis schedule. Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m.