If Precious Achiuwa
played his final home game as a Memphis Tiger Thursday night, he delivered a happy parting gift to the FedExForum faithful. The freshman small forward — one of five finalists for the Julius Erving Award — scored 14 points and pulled down 16 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season, matching the freshman total of Tiger great Keith Lee. Along with a season-high 19 points from Tyler Harris
, Achiuwa's performance sparked Memphis to a win over Wichita State that keeps NCAA tournament hopes alive and sets up the Tigers for a possible bye into the quarterfinals of next week's American Athletic Conference tourney. The U of M improved to 21-9 on the season (10-7 in the AAC), while the Shockers dropped to 22-8 (10-7).
"I'm very proud of the team tonight," said Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. "They stuck to the game plan for 40 minutes and made it really hard for Wichita State. A total team effort. The bench came in and played phenomenal. We didn't start strong, but the bench calmed things down and we stayed in control for the rest of the game. Only seven turnovers . . . that was major for us."
The Tigers didn't score until Lance Thomas
hit a three-pointer four minutes into the game. But a 13-0 run erased a 7-0 Shocker lead and the Tigers built a nine-point cushion before settling for a 29-24 halftime advantage (courtesy of a Harris trey at the buzzer).
Harris hit three-pointers on consecutive possessions midway through the second half to give the Tigers a 12-point lead (54-42). By the time Achiuwa threw down dunks on consecutive possessions (the latter at the 5:00 mark), the game was all but decided.
"We talked about taking care of the ball, and getting back on defense," said Achiuwa. "Keeping it simple, playing solid."
"It was a must-win," added Harris. "Everybody was locked in."
On a night Isaiah Maurice
was saluted as the team's only departing senior, Achiuwa deflected a question about the possibility of his own departure. "I'm focused on finishing out the season," he said, "and putting my team in a position to achieve our goals."
Goals are easier to achieve when turnovers are limited and your opponent shoots merely 34 percent from the field (and 26 percent from long range). "They did a great job of pressing our guards," said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. "We had chances, but we could never make the play to put pressure on them."
The win avenges a Tiger loss at Wichita State two months ago and sets up a showdown at Houston Sunday. Should Memphis beat the Cougars, the Tigers will secure fourth place in the AAC standings and that precious bye in the opening round of the league tournament at Fort Worth. Houston lost to Connecticut Thursday night and will enter the game with a record of 22-8 (12-5).
With news hovering around the program about an independent infractions investigation (related to James Wiseman's suspension and his playing three games last November), Hardaway welcomed the win as reinforcement of the mission he continues to sell. "We're going to keep going, no matter what," he emphasized. "Nothing's going to stop us from understanding what we're trying to do. This is a family. We've supported each other through everything we've gone through this year. We're not going to stop now."
Sunday's game at Houston is scheduled to tip-off at 11 a.m. and will be televised on CBS.