RALEIGH, N.C. – The pressure valve that at times seems to control life for the Memphis Tigers had opened in the form of a 71-66 victory over George Washington in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 64.
After the game, inside the Tigers’ locker room at PNC Arena, senior guard Chris Crawford leaned forward in his chair and summed up the Tigers’ uncomfortable position in the week that followed their American Athletic Conference flameout against Connecticut.
“Our backs were against the wall,” he said.
So it’s not an exaggeration to say the victory here on Friday saved the season as measured by Tiger Nation’s ultra-sensitive emotional gauge. After all, Memphis coach Josh Pastner was the one who immediately said in the postgame press conference at the AAC Tournament that they needed to win two NCAA games, and senior guard Geron Johnson straight-out said that they would win two NCAA games.
Now, to pull that off, the No. 8 seed Tigers (24-9) must go through the No. 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers (29-6) on Sunday. The game will start at approximately 7:40 p.m. Memphis time, after the completion of the game between No. 11 seed Tennessee and No. 14 seed Mercer. Virginia overcame a five-point halftime deficit to defeat No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina 70-59 and is considered a significant favorite on Sunday.
“We don’t look at is as some kind of Cinderella story,” Tigers sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin said. “We just need to win our next basketball game.”
Virginia ranks first nationally in scoring defense at 55.4 points per game. As of March 22, the Cavaliers ranked in the top 10 nationally in nine defensive categories. Virginia has held 33 of its 35 opponents below 50 percent shooting from the floor, and opponents are shooting 38.5 percent (ninth nationally) from the field.
That has much to with the fact Virginia has won 17 of its last 18 games, the lone loss on March 9 in overtime at Maryland.
“They do a good job containing the ball and making you take tough shots,” senior guard Joe Jackson said. “Then again, I don’t think they’ve played a team as quick as us.”
The Tigers’ resume proves they can handle an opponent that likes a fast pace. They swept Louisville in the regular season. But they went 0-for-3 against UConn, which plays slower than Louisville, and 0-2 against Cincinnati, which struggled to score against pretty much everybody that wasn’t Memphis. Virginia is more UConn-Cincinnati and less Louisville.
“I didn’t know they’d swept Louisville,” said 6-8, 235-pound senior Virginia forward Akil Mitchell, who is tied for seventh all-time in school history with 787 career rebounds. “I just feel like if we can get the game at our pace, we’ll be successful, just like any game.”
Jackson issues a caution about the pace, saying, “We can’t come out and play all wild and free just because (people) say we gotta push the pace.”
The Cavaliers probably will be happy for the Tigers to shoot early and often from the perimeter, as they have limited teams to 32.4 percent shooting from 3-point range. But the Cavaliers also understand the importance of keeping Memphis out of transition, another area in which they have excelled defensively this season.
“That’s one of our non-negotiables,” said guard Joe Harris, who’s shooting 42.1 percent from 3-point range.
The common non-negotiable come Sunday: Win or go home.
“There’s no looking back,” Pastner said, and then, at one point, in response to a question from a Washington Post reporter about what it would mean for Memphis to advance to the Sweet 16: “If we don’t get out of the first weekend, I might be working with you at the Washington Post, with the fan base in Memphis.”
As for Geron Johnson, he remains ever-confident the Tigers will back up his prediction of winning two games in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ll be in New York next week,” he said, referring to the site of the East Regional.
But until tip-off on Sunday, Johnson says he will be watching other NCAA Tournament games and paying close attention to the last two minutes of games where the outcome is assured.
“Guys are sitting there with towels on their head, upset,” Johnson said in what for now is a happy and hopeful Tigers locker room. “I don’t want to have that face.”