Defense and free throws.
From youth leagues to Game 7 of the NBA Finals, coaches emphasize two of basketball's decidedly unsexy elements when trying to squeeze a win out of an overmatched (on paper) team. Saturday afternoon at FedExForum, Penny Hardaway's Tigers excelled at both to upset the 22nd-ranked Houston Cougars, leaders of the American Athletic Conference.
hit one of two free throws with 28.6 seconds remaining to give Memphis a 60-59 lead. Then with five seconds left, Cougar guard Caleb Mills missed a jump shot from 18 feet, Achiuwa's right hand in his face. Tiger guard Alex Lomax
stripped the loose rebound from the hands of a Houston player only to have it deflected out of bounds — last touched by a Cougar — with three-tenths of a second on the clock. A long inbounds pass was all that remained to secure the Tigers' biggest win of 2020, a victory that improved the U of M record to 19-8 (8-6 in the AAC).
"I feel like, for 40 minutes, we showed who we were, and who we could be," said Hardaway. "We only scored 60 points, but the shots we got were quality shots. We did all the tough things to win this game. I'm very proud of them."
The Tigers only scored two field goals over the game's final four minutes (both of them dunks by Malcolm Dandridge
, who finished with a season-high 12 points). But the Tigers held Houston to a single field goal over the same stretch (a Mills bucket on his way to a game-high 21 points) and hit five of six free throws (Lomax and Lester Quinones
making two each). For the game, Memphis converted 21 of 30 shots from the foul line while Houston made 9 of 12. "That's the way it is on the road sometimes," said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars fell to 21-7 (11-4).
It wasn't pretty basketball. The Tigers didn't score over the game's first six minutes, but by stifling Houston shooters, they kept the score low and tied things up at 10 midway through the first half. Memphis led at halftime, 27-23, despite no player having scored as many as three field goals.
Cougar point guard Marcus Sasser scored seven points during a late Houston run that put Memphis behind, 54-51, with 3:30 left to play. And that's when the Tiger defense rose, forcing three misses (two by Mills) in the game's closing minutes.
"Our mindset was defense today," emphasized Lomax. "We've been working so hard. I'm so glad we came together as a team, a brotherhood, for the coaches and the city. We owed them this [win]."
"It's a confidence-booster for sure," added Tiger guard Tyler Harris
, who scored ten points and hit a pair of treys. "Going into these last few games, we'll have a different swagger."
How important were the Tiger free throws? Achiuwa and Quinones each missed eight of the nine shots they took from the field. But Achiuwa converted eight of his 12 free throws (to finish with 10 points) and Quinones all eight of his (to finish with 10 himself).
The Tigers committed only eight turnovers, their lowest total of the season, and held Houston to 35-percent shooting. There was, quite literally, no margin for error.
"We switched some things up [at halftime] to get into the pain more," said Hardaway. "Credit to the guys for getting in there and making things happen. Every free throw was needed. I'm relieved. I'm glad the guys can see the other side of it. We've been losing some heartbreakers at the end. A lot of it self-inflicting wounds. We steadied the ship and got a win."
As for defense becoming his team's calling card, Hardaway considers it a welcome surprise. "It's ironic — or weird, to be more exact — for a freshman-laden team to be one of the best defensive teams in the country," he said. "For that to be us, right now, it feels good. Of course we'd want more points. But you're gonna win championships and win games with defense. We've gotten stops in other games, but just couldn't bring it home. To finish the game with three stops is great."
Three of the Tigers' last four regular-season games will be played on the road, starting Tuesday night at SMU. The Mustangs came back late to beat Memphis, 74-70, on January 25th at FedExForum.