RALEIGH, N.C. – Senior guard Michael Dixon Jr. once thought his college basketball career was done.
You know the story. From Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year at Missouri to being exiled after sexual assault allegations that never became more than that, never turned into actual charges.
Dixon sat out a year and came to Memphis, an encore of a reclamation project after coach Josh Pastner’s gamble on taking Geron Johnson worked out.
So considering all the places Dixon could have been or might have been on Friday, March 21, 2014, he didn’t mind standing on the free-throw line at PNC Arena in an NCAA Tournament game, 9.6 seconds on the clock, his team’s lead down to a precarious one point.
“I live for this kind of moment,” Dixon said afterward, when he had hit the free throws and the No 8 seed Tigers had survived for a 71-66 win over No. 9 seed George Washington. “I didn’t want to go home today.”
Asked if this was the kind of moment he envisioned when recruiting Dixon, Pastner smiled and said, “Yeah, he’s made big free throws throughout the year. And Michael hit a big three late to stretch (the lead) out. We called a timeout to get him back in.”
Dixon’s three came at the 2:07 mark and hiked the lead back to five, at 67-62.
That shot and those late free throws were the biggest part of Dixon’s team-high 19 points off the bench – 13 in the second half – as the Tigers won more with will and grit and then style and grace; they were just 6-of-22 from 3-point range for 27.3 percent.
“We played our guts out,” said senior guard Chris Crawford, who was 3-for-10 from 3-point range for nine points but also handed out six assists with no turnovers. “A lot of passion.”
Which was, after all, what seemed to be missing last week as UConn came into FedExForum for the American Athletic Conference Tournament and embarrassed the Tigers. A day after Dixon was honored as the AAC’s Sixth Man of the Year and freshman forward Austin Nichols was recognized as the league’s Rookie of the Year, the team played as if, to borrow from a pat Pastner line, they thought winning was a birthright.
Now they have kept alive their streak of having not lost back-to-back games this season as their record improved to 24-9. On Sunday, they will play the winner of No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina.
“To win this game was big for us,” said senior guard Joe Jackson, who finished with 15 points, six assists, five rebounds and four turnovers. “Duke lost today. There were a lot of upsets. It’s not a fear thing in our locker room; it’s just come out and play basketball.”
And for the most part, that’s what they did. Nichols had a rough first half, but played better in the second half and finished with nine points and six rebounds.
“I guess my nerves,” Nichols said, explaining his tentative play. “First game in an NCAA Tournament, it’s not like you can say that every day. Second half, I got a little rhythm.”
But so did GW. Memphis led 31-26 at halftime and pushed the lead to 10 points a few times but never could extend it. The Tigers’ biggest second-half lead came at the 9:38 mark when a Dixon jumper made it 55-45. From there, GW worked the deficit down to five points at 4:52 only to see the Tigers quickly push the lead back to nine.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” GW coach Mike Lonergan said.
But after a missed 3-pointer from Crawford, GW guard Joe McDonald made a layup with 25 seconds left to make it 67-66 Tigers. Though GW never led, suddenly the game was there for the taking.
A foul put Dixon at the line with 9.6 seconds left and he hit two free throws to put the lead back to three. The Colonials got off a 3-pointer of their own from guard Maurice Creek with three seconds left, but it wasn’t close and another foul and two more Dixon free throws wrapped things up.
Sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin had eight points and five rebounds and senior forward David Pellom played solid 14 minutes against his old school, going 2-for-2 from the floor with four points, two rebounds and two steals.
“Everybody chipped in,” Crawford said.
Forward Isaiah Armwood led GW with 21 points and forward Kevin Larsen scored 16 points as GW won points in the paint 42-36. But the Colonials hit just 2-of-12 3-point shots (16.7).
“We did a good job running them off the line,” Crawford said.
Pellom had transferred from GW to Memphis precisely because he wanted an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament (this was GW’s first appearance since 2007).
But now, Pellom wants more and vows the Tigers will not be complacent just because they won this game.
“We take the next game as if it could be our last,” he said, adding, “I know my days are numbered.”