Having finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference, the Tigers barely missed an opening-round bye in this week's tournament at FedExForum. They were grateful Thursday afternoon for the next best thing: a date with Tulane.
Mike Parks Jr.
Memphis pulled away early and withstood a poor second half to beat the Green Wave (winless in league play this season) and advance to Friday's quarterfinals where the Tigers will face UCF. Senior guard Jeremiah Martin
scored 21 points and joined Elliot Perry and Joe Jackson as the only players in Tiger history to rank among the top 10 in career points and assists. Freshman reserve Tyler Harris
connected on four three-pointers to add 12 points, Mike Parks
contributed a double-double (14 points, 13 rebounds), and Kyvon Davenport
scored 17 points to help Memphis earn its 20th win of the season.
"Tulane had nothing to lose, and they had a week to prepare for us," noted Penny Hardaway after his first postseason win as Tiger coach. "We knew they'd have something for Jeremiah. We got a little away from our game plan, but lucky for us, we were able to get things under control and get a win."
After shooting a blistering 54.5 percent in the first half, the Tigers shot only 36 percent in the second and committed 10 of their 15 turnovers. A Memphis lead that swelled to 23 points (65-42) early in the second half dwindled to nine (77-68) with just over three minutes to play before the Tigers solidified the victory.
"We did what we had to do to win the game," stressed Hardaway. "If you lose the game trying to manage minutes, you don't play tomorrow anyway. It's an early enough game for us to be hydrated and be ready for tomorrow's game. We didn't disrespect Tulane."
Hardaway received a collective spark from the rest of his four-man bench with freshman Alex Lomax
drilling an early three-pointer and handing out four assists, Isaiah Maurice
scoring seven points, and Antwann Jones
handing out three assists.
Caleb Daniels led the Green Wave with 19 points as Tulane finished its season 4-27.
Hardaway has tried to keep his team in "one-game-at-a-time" mode, despite the entire city discussing the possibility of a four-game winning streak that would earn Memphis an NCAA tournament berth. For such a streak to reach two, the Tigers will have to beat UCF in Friday's quarterfinals (tip-off at 1 p.m.). Memphis beat the Knights by 20 points at FedExForum in January, then lost at UCF (79-72) last month.
"[UCF] might be the hottest team in our league," said Hardaway. "They've had a lot of time to prepare. We're gonna have to hit on all cylinders tomorrow. There's only so much changes you'll make before a conference tournament."
"We're not looking past the game we have right in front of us," added Martin. "We know we have to win four games [to reach the NCAA tournament], but we're taking it one game at a time."
Ironically, the Tigers (now 20-12) opened postseason play in front of the smallest FedExForum crowd they've seen all season (8,046). Nonetheless, Hardaway relished the ovation that greeted his arrival to the court, and especially relishes the arrival of do-or-die basketball. "It got my juices flowing, the way they welcomed me," he said. "No butterflies yet. I look forward to this time of year. I try to stay as calm as I can."