In this era of University of Memphis basketball the home crowd is easily made restless. So when a 7-point halftime lead over Houston went away early in the second half as the Cougars tied the score 39-39, a community grumble rolled through FedExForum.
And later, when a 15-point lead shrunk to a 6-point advantage with 56 seconds to play – and again with 51 seconds remaining – a small wave of panic toured the building.
In the end, the No. 19/21-ranked Tigers finished off an 81-74 victory on Wednesday, Feb. 20, won their 17th in a row, stayed unbeaten in Conference USA (12-0) and put themselves in position to clinch the league title here Saturday, Feb. 23, with a win over Southern Miss (10-2 in league play).
Memphis guard Adonis Thomas goes to the basket against Houston defenders Jherrod Stiggers (21), Valentine Izundu, top, Joseph Young (0) and Danuel House (23).
(Photo: AP Photo/Lance Murphey)
Chris Crawford just missed a triple-double – more on that later – and Adonis Thomas led the Tigers’ scoring with 22 points and Tarik Black came off the bench to score 15 points and inject some offensive energy into the team when things got sluggish.
Yet even coach Josh Pastner, who naturally praised Houston (4-8 in C-USA) and called this another “good win” and the streak a difficult accomplishment – “17 in a row, don’t take it for granted,” he said – spent about as much time bemoaning his team’s 19 turnovers, poor defense and 3-of-14 shooting from 3-point range.
“We were sloppy,” he said.
The Tigers are now 23-3 and while their turnovers didn’t ultimately cost them against Houston, they could have. Remember, the Tigers committed 22 turnovers that became 33 points in the loss to VCU. And they had 24 turnovers that translated into 29 points in the loss to Louisville.
“Most of it’s mental,” Thomas said of the 19 miscues against Houston that became 26 points; the Tigers scored just 10 points off 11 Houston turnovers. “Sometimes it’s trying to be too unselfish and sometimes it’s trying to do too much.”
Pastner agrees with both points. One of his favorite refrains is don’t try to hit a home run when a single will do. As for sometimes over-passing, Pastner said, “I’d rather have that than the other way.”
Had Thomas scored at game’s end when he was under the Houston goal – on a pass from Crawford – then Crawford would have finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists (he ended up with 9) and Thomas would have had a career-high in points at 24. But Pastner, not realizing Crawford was on the verge of a triple-double and not wanting to run up the score, waved Thomas away from the basket.
“I just did what coach said,” Thomas said. “But the team’s getting on me, cracking jokes. I apologized to Chris. I’ll have to buy him lunch the rest of the week.”
The way Thomas is playing, teammates probably will be happy to keep him filled up. He has now scored 17, 23 and 22 in his last three games and is making strong moves to either finish at the basket or create room for mid-range shots.
“You can’t stop him full-speed like that,” Black said.
Black perhaps stopped himself earlier in the season when he sat out the Nov. 29 game against UT Martin with what Pastner labeled an “internal matter.” Although he has typically played 15 to 20 minutes per game, he hasn’t started since the Bahamas trip early in the season. Asked if his performance against Houston helped “validate” him, Black said: “Validation? It feels really good to get the win and do as well as I did.”
Pastner also brushed aside a question about his team needing any validation. What it needs is the next win – the 18th in a row, against Southern Miss this Saturday, and which would wrap up the league championship before the ever-nervous home crowd.
“That would be special,” Black said. “But at the same time, we’re trying to win out, go 16-0.”
The perfect way to say goodbye to C-USA.