RALEIGH, N.C. – Senior guard Geron Johnson had guaranteed the Memphis Tigers would win two NCAA Tournament games. But in the wake of their 78-60 loss to top-seeded Virginia Sunday night in the round of 32, Johnson looked a reporter in the eye and offered a revised declaration.
Memphis guard Geron Johnson shoots against Virginia’s Justin Anderson, left, and Anthony Gill (13) during Sunday’s game, which brought Johnson’s career to an end along with four other seniors.
(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
“Underachieved,” he said, summing up a 23-10 season that was the last for Johnson and the three other senior guards on which coach Josh Pastner placed so many of the team’s hopes. “Underachieved.”
“Man, just a terrible day,” senior and hometown hero Joe Jackson said as he leaned against a wall in a hallway outside the Tigers locker room, his last line in a Memphis box score seven points, one rebound, three assists, two turnovers, one steal and zero free-throw attempts. “To lose your last game as a senior in that fashion, worst thing that can happen.”
It was Jackson who scored the last basket – a dunk off a fastbreak set up by freshman forward Nick King’s steal – before the beginning of the end of this Tigers season. After that basket at the 6:34 mark of the first half pulled No. 8 seed Memphis to within a point, at 19-18, the Cavaliers closed the half on a 16-2 run for a 35-20 lead.
“We were obviously terrible on defense when they made their run,” said senior guard Chris Crawford, who never got his outside shot going and finished with three points on a 1-for-6 night from 3-point range.
Truthfully, it was a 15-point lead that felt like much more – like a will-breaker. It didn’t help that the Tigers had missed several shots right at the rim in the game’s first few minutes.
“You know, we could sense some frustration and barking at each other a little bit at the beginning,” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said of the Tigers. “We feed on that and use it as fuel to get us going even more defensively and that leads into our offense.”
The Cavaliers came in ranked No. 1 in scoring defense nationally, allowing teams 55.4 points per game. At halftime, the Tigers were shooting 26.7 percent and the only shot Jackson attempted in 17 minutes was the breakaway dunk.
“I know Virginia’s a good team,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know they could stop us from running everything.”
But they did and that fed the Tigers’ frustration. So did their inability to follow through on defensive assignments. Sometimes, they didn’t even press when coach Josh Pastner was actively calling for the press.
Pastner spent much of the second half standing on the sideline with his arms folded. Which was a perfect imitation of the Tigers’ defensive stance as UVA shot 55.6 percent from the floor. As the Tigers fell behind by as many as 27 points, perhaps the coach should have raised his arms in total surrender.
The orange-clad and loud Virginia-majority crowd enjoyed every moment, chanting “U-V-A!” and “Go Hoos!” Toward the end, when some fans behind the television crew became bored, they chanted “Reg-gie Mil-ler” until the former NBA star and current game analyst turned around and gave them a thumbs-up.
“It felt almost like a home game,” said center Mike Tobey, one of five Virginia players in double-figures with 11 points; guard Joe Harris led UVA with 16 points and forward Anthony Gill scored 13 with eight rebounds off the bench.
“I actually think their offense sets up their defense,” Pastner said of the Cavaliers (30-6), who advance to play Michigan State in the Sweet 16 at the East Regional in New York. “They move as well without the ball as any team in the country.”
The only positive team stats for Memphis: 16 assists to just six turnovers, a 42-40 edge on points in the paint and an 18-12 advantage in fastbreak points. Or, if wanting to look into the future, there was a team-high 15 points from freshman forward Austin Nichols and eight points and three steals from King.
But none of it mattered as the Tigers were outrebounded 40-28 and shot a dismal 42.9 percent (9-for-21) from the free-throw line; in the second half they were even worse, going 6-for-17 from the line for 35.3 percent.
“When you’re down, you’ve got to get stops to stop the bleeding,’” said senior guard Michael Dixon Jr., who had scored a team-high 19 points in the round of 64 victory over George Washington but scored just five points on a 2-for-8 shooting night.
“We weren’t as disciplined as we were supposed to be,” said Johnson, who had 11 points. “Late in the game we were trying to get an eight-point shot and it’s not (there).”
And even if it had been, that wouldn’t have been enough.
“It was just a bad day for Memphis basketball,” sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin said.
And for this season and all the seniors, the last day.