A win is never ugly when it ends a three-game losing streak.
The Tigers witnessed the evaporation of a 16-point lead over a ten-minute stretch of the second half Wednesday night at FedExForum, but managed to prevail courtesy of two late shots by Boogie Ellis
and Precious Achiuwa
's 15th double-double of his freshman season. Memphis improved to 18-8 on the season and 7-6 in the American Athletic Conference while East Carolina dropped to 10-17 (4-10).
"It seems like once we get a lead, guys start trying things," said Tiger coach Penny Hardaway, who notched the 40th win of his two-year career (matching Tubby's Smith's two seasons in Memphis). "I hope we're learning [from games like this], and can finish stronger. But I'm very happy to get a win. It doesn't matter if it's by one or by thirty. Just getting a win is statement enough. It's tough to win in this league."
The Tigers had an unusually strong start, taking a 20-8 lead midway through the first half. Even with Pirate star Jayden Gardner held to four points, ECU managed to close the deficit to six (33-27) by the break. Back-to-back three-pointers by Ellis and Lance Thomas
gave the Tigers that 16-point cushion (49-33) with just over 16 minutes left in the game, but the Pirates enjoyed a 27-11 run to tie the game at 60 with 6:20 remaining on the clock.
Gardner tied the game at 69 with a jumper at the 2:15 mark, but Ellis banked in a leaner on the Tigers' ensuing possession. An Achiuwa layup and a pair of Thomas free throws provided enough for Memphis to earn its first win in two weeks.
"Around five minutes [to play], I reminded the guys that it's winning time," said Achiuwa who finished with 24 points (on 9-of-13 shooting) and 12 rebounds. "We have to figure out a way to win these games. We can't use the same excuses this late in the season. It's a time for freshmen to become sophomores. Everybody was desperate down the stretch."
"I just went with the flow of the game," said Ellis when asked about his decisive late-game field goals. Coach [Hardaway] trusts me, with the hard work I've been putting in at the gym." Ellis hit four of seven three-point attempts and scored 17 points.
The Tigers missed 13 of 31 free throws, but clamped down on the defensive end, holding ECU to 20 percent (4 for 20) from long range. Tristen Newton led the Pirates with 23 points and Gardner finished with 16.
The Tigers kept turnovers to a minimum (13) and handed out 15 assists.
"We've had opportunities to win games, with big leads that we've relinquished at home," acknowledged Hardaway. "It's frustrating. We know when we get a lead how we got it. The coaches are saying to take the high-percentage shot, make the right pass. Guys start looking for more." He pointed out that Achiuwa is one who emphasizes simplicity, getting a stop when needed. Despite two first-half fouls, Achiuwa played 33 minutes and was, indeed, on the floor for "winning time."
Memphis returns to action Saturday afternoon when Houston — leader of the AAC — comes to town. The Cougars are 21-6 and 11-3 in league play.