The Tigers' climb toward an NCAA tournament berth grew considerably steeper Saturday afternoon with a loss to the USF Bulls at FedExForum. Down a pair of forwards for most of the game (one for the entire game), Memphis surrendered 41 rebounds (15 at the offensive end) while pulling down only 29, a factor significant enough for USF to earn its third straight win and improve to 11-12 for the season (4-6 in the American Athletic Conference). The loss ends a three-game winning streak for the Tigers and drops them to 17-6 (6-4).
"You gotta tip your hat to South Florida," said Tiger coach Penny Hardaway. "They came into our building and got a tough win. I had an eerie feeling before the game. They were just hungry to do whatever it takes. We got into foul trouble in the first half, and that started our downfall. We never got into a rhythm. Guys not being able to play aggressively. A total embarrassment today."
The Tigers erased a nine-point deficit over a two-minute span late in the game, with a pair of three pointers by Alex Lomax
and a four-point play by Boogie Ellis
. But Bulls forward David Collins made a layup in traffic then followed with a short bank shot to give USF a four-point advantage (72-68) with less than 30 seconds left on the clock. Xavier Castaneda made three free throws inside the game's final ten seconds to secure the upset. Collins and Laquincy Rideau each scored a game-high 21 points for the Bulls.
"It's Memphis and they're a national brand," said Bulls coach Brian Gregory. "Our kids are competitive. We've lost some of these games, not being able to finish. But I think we've learned from that."
"That's a team that makes tough shots at the right time," said Lomax. "They don't have a good record, but that's a good team."
Tiger forward Precious Achiuwa
scored six points in the game's first three minutes only to sit for the final 12 minutes of the first half with two fouls. With freshman center Malcolm Dandridge sidelined by what a team official described as a minor knee injury, Hardaway found himself going "small ball" early. The Tigers scrapped their way to a 34-31 halftime lead courtesy of a Tyler Harris
three-pointer just before the break.
Achiuwa struggled to make an impact in the second half (missing all four of his shots from the field), then missed the game's final few minutes after a hard fall under the USF basket. Likewise, Lance Thomas
had to leave the game with an injury. (Hardaway was unable to provide updates on either player during his postgame press conference.)
"Our Achilles heel is one-on-one defense," acknowledged Hardaway. "At the end of the game, we weren't able to get any stops. They got two one-on-one buckets. That's where you have to grow."
Harris led Memphis in the scoring column with 17 points (he hit five of seven shots from three-point range). Lomax scored 14 off the bench and
Ellis hit five of seven shots for 14 points himself.
"Everything happens for a reason," said Hardaway. "I don't know why these injuries are happening now, or why we're losing games we're not supposed to lose. I'm always going to have faith; I'll never let that waiver. But for Precious and Lance to both get hurt . . . that took our size away."
The Tigers must now play four of their next six games on the road with virtually no margin for error. What kind of message will Hardaway send his young — and yes, injured — team? "Stay positive and stay together," he emphasized. "We're going to keep fighting. That's what our culture is. We're a family. That's all we can do. Right now, it's tough. But it's not impossible."
The Tigers travel to Cincinnati for their next game Thursday night and will face UConn on the road next Sunday. They return to FedExForum to host East Carolina on February 19th.