The exact moment when Houston’s Tramon Mark split Lester Quinones and Damion Baugh’s double-team at half-court, Penny Hardaway said he knew Mark’s desperation heave at the buzzer was going in.
Memphis fought valiantly Sunday, battling with the #9 team in the country for all of thirty-nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds. When Boogie Ellis connected on a game-tying three with two seconds remaining, the entire city of Memphis let out a collective sigh of relief and began to brace themselves for overtime in a game that had already been bonkers.
Houston had other plans. Mark’s three-pointer banked in and the Cougars downed the Tigers, 67-64.
“Initially, we were going to foul,” coach Penny Hardaway said. “We had two fouls to give, but we felt like if they advanced it to half court and we fouled them, they would have like 1.5 [seconds], and everybody in America has plays from the half court they can run to get a good look at the basket. We wanted them to advance it full court with Malcolm Dandridge all over the ball. When they bounced it, I just knew one of our guys would get around him and steal it because the bounce pass is easy. It’s the worst pass you can throw from that length of the floor. When he split Damion Baugh and Lester and released the ball, from my angle, I saw it going in all the way.”
From the opening tip, it was clear both sides had the intensity level ratcheted all the way up. Bodies thudded and limbs flailed as players battled for every rebound and dove for loose balls. As the game wore on and the fouls piled up, neither side flinched. It truly was a fitting return for March hoops.
While Memphis did not get the result they were hoping for, they can now regroup knowing just how close they were.
“We were in the game with these guys the entire game,” Quinones said. “They are a top 10 team in the country, and we were on their court. The fact that it was a tie game with 1.7 seconds and that happens, I want to say it gives us confidence.”
The loss Sunday complicates the path back to the NCAA tournament for Memphis. With their shot at an at-large bid now likely gone, they will have to win the American Athletic Conference tournament to earn a bid to big dance. Luckily for them, they clinched a top-four seed in the tournament, which means they will get a first-round bye. Regardless, for Memphis to return to the NCAA tournament field for the first time since 2014, they will have to win three games in three days.
“We’re Memphis. Of course we have to win to get in,” Hardaway said. “Nobody is going to give us anything. We’ve shown that we’re a talented team. Nobody in the country comes into Houston and plays the way we just played. We understand what we have to do when we go to Dallas. Our mindset is on winning it, and we’re going to have to face this team again.”
The Tigers will now await the winner of East Carolina and Central Florida, which is set for 6 p.m. Thursday night. Memphis will then play the winner of that game on Friday at 9 p.m.