A couple hours prior to their matchup against UConn, a season that had already seen its share of ups-and-downs took yet another tough blow when the news broke that freshman forward D.J. Jeffries had suffered a partially torn PCL that will keep him sidelined at least a month.
Despite the unfortunate injury to one of their primary scorers, they would have to adjust on the fly against a tough Huskies team if they hoped to keep their NCAA tournament chances alive.
An energetic start saw Memphis come out of the gate with plenty of confidence. While they were able to quickly stretch their lead to eight, the turnover bug reared its ugly head once more and UConn raced back to take a one-point lead into the intermission.
After the break, each team battled back-and-forth in what was an exciting second half. Despite struggling to convert from the field, Memphis was able to do a good enough job of drawing contact and knocking down free throws to escape with a 70-63 win.
Precious Achiuwa led the way with 16 points and eight boards, Lance Thomas and Lester Quinones each added 14 and Alex Lomax finished 8-8 from the charity stripe. They were able to slip by despite a game-high 24 turnovers.
“These turnovers are very disappointing,” Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway said. “I am proud of the guys for playing really good defense in the second half, despite the turnovers. To have a team shoot 20 more shots than us, and us have 24 turnovers and win by 7, it says a lot about how good we can be.”
One of the crucial developments over the last two wins has been the emergence of redshirt-sophomore forward Lance Thomas. Although the Louisville transfer had previously struggled getting his shot to fall, his ability to stretch the floor will be a major asset in tight games down the stretch. To go along with his fourteen-point effort, Thomas also tallied a team-high five blocks.
“Offensively, just letting the game come to me,” Thomas said. “Coach Penny told me before the game to just take what the defense gives you. Defensively, I’ve been a shot blocker. I take pride in my defense. I don’t want anybody getting anything around the rim around me easy.”
Moving forward, it will not be easy to consistently fill the D.J. Jeffries-sized hole in their lineup. They showed Saturday that they can grind out ugly wins, but they will have to limit the turnovers to stay in the hunt for a top-four seed in the league tournament next month.
“He’s a huge part of this puzzle,” Lester Quinones said. “He’s a huge part of this team. He’s a hustle guy, always out there scrapping and playing his heart out. I feel like it’s the same scenario when I was out with my hand. The team just came together and now it’s my turn to be a part of it. He’s going to be there on the sideline cheering for us. Especially with all the adversity we’ve faced throughout this season, I feel like it’s just another way for us to come together and just glue together.”
Up next for Memphis is another mid-week home clash with Temple. Tip-off against the Owls is set for Wednesday at 7 p.m.