In the Penny Hardaway Story, Bearcats are villains. This goes all the way back to the winter of 1992 when, in a span of a little over two months, Cincinnati beat the Memphis State Tigers — and their star sophomore guard, Penny Hardaway — four times, including the Midwest Regional final of the NCAA tournament. Hardaway's last home game as a Tiger came in the Great Midwest Conference tournament on March 13, 1993. The Tigers lost to Cincinnati in the Pyramid. "They've always been the team that comes in and punches first," said Hardaway after Thursday night's nationally televised game between the Tigers and Bearcats at FedExForum.
The villains went down this time. With Hardaway now coaching his 22nd-ranked Tigers, Memphis ended a six-game losing streak to Cincinnati by pulling away in the game's final minutes following a technical foul charged to Bearcat coach John Brannen. (Brannen disputed an offensive foul called on his star guard, Jarron Cumberland. He disputed vigorously, like a good villain.) Four free throws by Lester Quinones
and field goals by Alex Lomax
, D.J. Jeffries
, and Malcolm Dandridge
yielded a 10-0 run that secured a second-straight win for Memphis, now 14-3 and 3-1 in the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats — winners of the AAC tournament last March at FedExForum — fell to 10-7 (3-2).
Making just his second start, freshman center Dandridge
scored only three points but otherwise stuffed the stat sheet with seven rebounds, four assists, four steals, and three blocks in 27 minutes on the floor. Hardaway's former high school player (at East) established some college credentials, and against a formidable foe. "Malcolm helped a lot today," said Hardaway. "That's what I'm challenging him to do on a game-to-game basis. You have to come out and make your presence felt, offensively and defensively. A lot of people don't know what he does out there. He's kind of quick, knows how to make decisions. He looked really good."
The Tigers outplayed Cincinnati in a choppy first half and took an 11-point lead (31-20) to the break. But after falling behind by 15 (35-20), the Bearcats surged, outscoring the Tigers 18-2 over a seven-minute stretch to take a 38-37 lead on a Cumberland three-pointer. The Tigers responded, though, with a 10-0 run keyed by a pair of Jeffries three-pointers and a thunderous dunk by Precious Achiuwa
, who contributed his 10th double-double of the season (12 points and 11 rebounds) and sixth in a row.
"We've played in enough games where teams try to beat us up," said Hardaway. "With Cincinnati, that's their whole deal. We had to protect home court, and keep punching. We withstood that run. I'm proud of our team, not letting their physicality push us back. We kept moving forward."
"Malcolm had a really big game today," added Achiuwa. "We needed his inside presence, a big body to bang [opponents]. He helped me a lot; I really didn't have to do a lot of banging. Blocking shots, changing shots, he allowed us to stay in the game."
Jeffries led the Tigers with 18 points and Quinones added 13 (making all three of his three-point attempts). For the fourth straight game, Memphis accumulated more turnovers (17) than assists (14), but held the Bearcats to 30-percent shooting. Cumberland led Cincinnati with 19 points.
"We've been in a ton of battles," acknowledged Hardaway, "more than I'd want. When you've been down and come back and won, you don't have that quit. You'll never quit. That's what this team shows. They keep fighting. If we get down, we know we're not out."
Spoken like a man who'd just vanquished a villain.
The Tigers' next game is on January 22nd at Tulsa. They host SMU on Saturday, January 25th.