A season of adversity for the Tigers took another twist, quite literally, Thursday when starting forward D.J. Jeffries — the team's second-leading scorer — partially tore a ligament in his left knee, sidelining him for at least a month. When Jayden Hardaway started in Jeffries's place Saturday afternoon against UConn, you got the sense coach Penny Hardaway was doing the closest thing he could to taking the floor himself.
The younger Hardaway only played seven minutes, and didn't take a shot, but the Tigers won a sloppy affair, hitting 10 straight free throws in the game's final two minutes to pull away for a victory despite committing 24 turnovers. The Huskies attempted 20 more shots from the field than did the Tigers (65-45), but committed 20 turnovers of their own. Perhaps the home court — "an incredibly tough place to play" as described by UConn coach Danny Hurley — was enough to make the difference as the Tigers improved to 16-5 for the season and 5-3 in he American Athletic Conference.
"We can still compete," emphasized sophomore guard Alex Lomax
, who scored 13 points and hit six of those late free throws. "We're missing some key pieces, but Coach did a great job of putting this team together. If we stay locked in, we can do anything."
"Crazy game," said an exasperated Hardaway after the game. "Glad to get a win. These turnovers are really disappointing. You gotta keep motivating. The boys are rallying together. The mindset right now is every game is a big game. It's getting close to seeding for the NCAA [tournament]. You gotta win out, do everything possible to get a win."
The game featured 14 lead changes, the final one coming on a Lester Quinones
three-pointer from the right corner with 2:30 left to play that put Memphis up 59-56. Having missed five games earlier this season with a broken hand, Quinones led Memphis with 36 minutes of action and scored 14 points. He acknowledged the loss of Jeffries as a setback, but didn't consider it a deathblow for his team's season.
"He's a huge part of this puzzle, this team," said Quinones of Jeffries. "When I was out, the team came together. It's another way for us to come together."
started his second-straight game and scored 14 points while blocking five shots on the defensive end. Precious Achiuwa
scored 16 points and pulled down eight rebounds, but was also responsible for a third of the Tigers' turnovers (8). The sloppy play was offset by the Tigers making 21 of 27 from the foul line and seven of 14 shots from three-point range.
"We've been through everything you can go through," noted Hardaway. "We're fighting. These guys are scrapping. I'm proud of the effort." The coach explained how energy needs to be turned up at times and harnessed at others, that tempo is a must for this team . . . until slower play is necessary to protect possessions. The Tigers' chemistry is volatile at best, with 10 regular-season games left to play.
"If you're at a major Division-I program right now and you don't understand the magnitude of what's going on, then this level's too high," said Hardaway. "They came to a major D-I program to take it over the hump. The pressure's not on them; it's on the coaches. They're young. It's our job to get them prepared, to get them ready."
The Tigers return to FedExForum Wednesday when they host Temple. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.