As the lower seed in Friday's American Athletic Conference quarterfinal at FedExForum, the Tigers wore their road blues. Beyond that, the contest was reminiscent of the teams' last meeting in Memphis, a 20-point victory by the home team (wearing white that day in late January). Junior forward Isaiah Maurice
came off the bench and scored a season-high 21 points to lead a dominant Tiger performance, a win that improves the U of M to 21-12 for the season and sets up a clash with 11th-ranked Houston in one of Saturday's semifinals. UCF drops to 23-8 and will now likely be relegated to the NIT field.
"Both teams knew each other well," said Memphis coach Penny Hardaway after the game. "It came down to will. Making shots and making plays. Our team did that the entire game, and I'm proud of them. It's win or go home. Our guys have continued to get better, and their hard work is paying off now."
The Knights jumped out to an 11-4 lead before Hardaway began entering his supporting players. Freshman guard Tyler Harris
followed a Maurice three-pointer with one of his own to give the Tigers a 14-11 lead just over eight minutes into the game. Both Maurice (10) and senior forward Kyvon Davenport
(12) were in double figures in the scoring column by halftime, when the Tigers led 37-27.
Senior forward Raynere Thornton
dropped a three-pointer from the left corner to extend the Tigers' lead to 14 (41-27) not quite three minutes into the second half and another trey from Maurice made it a 20-point margin with just under eight minutes left on the clock.
On the defensive end, the Tigers held UCF guard B.J. Taylor (a first-team all-conference selection) to nine points and Aubrey Dawkins (a second-teamer) to seven (and one-for-ten shooting). Towering Knights center Tacko Fall (7'6") scored 12 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, but was limited to 24 minutes by foul trouble.
Davenport finished with 16 points and Jeremiah Martin
scored 13 in the romp. Memphis is now 16-1 against UCF in the Bluff City.
"We're playing desperate," said Hardaway. "We know the road we have to take, and we understand every possession. Counts. We're playing like it."
Hardaway was effusive in praising Davenport, a difference-maker when at the top of his game. "There's no small forward in the country that can stop him," said the coach. "He's almost impossible to guard. I've put a lot of pressure on him. He's shown up at the right time."
"I knew we had to focus, and not let them get out early," added Davenport. "I thought we did a pretty good job. They only had one guy in double figures."
Top-seeded Houston will be a tall order Saturday. The Cougars beat Memphis, 90-77, in Texas on January 6th. The Cougars' only home loss this season came against UCF.
Hardaway welcomes the chance to face Houston in Memphis, even if, officially speaking, FedExForum is "neutral" this week. "It's been a maturation process for all the guys," said Hardaway. "They wanted to be individuals early, do it all on their own. But as the season's gone on, we put our foot down and started playing tougher. They started to buy in. We've made some mental mistakes, but for the most part we're all in."
Tip-off for Saturday's semifinal is scheduled for 2 p.m.