Penny Hardaway did not look or sound like a victorious coach late Thursday night in the media room at FedExForum. When asked to assess his team's win over the East Carolina Pirates — a team fresh off an upset of Cincinnati — Hardaway insisted his players must collectively change their mindset to achieve any measure of success.
"We took two freshmen [Tyler Harris and Antwann Jones] out of the starting lineup and replaced them with seniors [Kareem Brewton and Kyvon Davenport]," explained Hardaway, "because [the freshmen] were being too lax, had to be pushed every day in practice. You can't come to practice half-assed, going through the motions. We're trying to get better. How you practice is how you play. They took the challenge. But I'm really disappointed in the seniors, falling behind early."
The lineup change, as Hardaway made clear, yielded mixed results. Despite starting five seniors, the Tigers fell behind by 15 points (33-18) over the game's first 12 minutes. Only a pair of three-pointers in the final minute before halftime — one by Davenport, the other by Harris — made the deficit (40-36) at the break feel close. Considering the energy deficit at tip-off, it could have been much worse.
"We can build off this and learn from our mistakes," acknowledged Davenport, who scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season. "Come out with more energy for the next game."
When the Tigers finally did energize, the benched freshmen were key components. Harris led Memphis with 16 points and connected on four three-pointers while Jones scored 10 points, handed out three assists, and picked up three steals. But there can be more, if you listen to their coach.
"We're trying to create a culture around here where you're working hard every second," said Hardaway. "When we're at the practice facility and when we're on the court. They're coming back next year. I want them to be able to tell the new guys, 'This is the way we do it around here.' You've got to set a standard."
The Tigers finally took the lead (61-60) on a pair of free throws by Jeremiah Martin midway through the second half. The game was tied at 65 with 7:47 to play before the U of M took control for good, Davenport dunking the ball on a feed from Harris and Harris delivering a trey that proved to be the dagger.
The win improves Memphis to 10-6 and 2-1 in the American Athletic Conference while ECU falls to 8-7 (1-2).
"I'm so competitive," said Hardaway. "I went with a [starting lineup] that started most games last year. I felt we were in good hands. For the seniors to start out without much energy — after not making the NCAA tournament last year, not making the NIT — it speaks volumes.
"The team chemistry is getting better. It's not going to move forward without the seniors. They have to talk to the freshmen. I don't know if they're doing a good job of that. We're coaching, we're teaching. But those guys have to lead us."
Freshman guard Alex Lomax only played two minutes, suffering an upper-body injury on a collision early in the game. (Hardaway couldn't confirm if Lomax had undergone concussion protocol.) Junior Isaiah Maurice absorbed some of Lomax's minutes off the bench and scored 10 points. Brewton hit all five of his shots from the field and added 13 points.
The Tigers will get a chance to re-energize Sunday when they travel to New Orleans to face Tulane (4-11).