Merriam-Webster defines survival instinct as the ability to know what to do to stay alive. For the Memphis Tigers (17-8, 6-6 American Athletic Conference), losers of three straight games, there would be no better time than the present for that instinct to kick in. A home loss to East Carolina (10-16, 4-9 AAC) Wednesday night would essentially be the dagger to their chance of snapping a five-year NCAA tournament drought.
A smaller-than-normal crowd may have played a role in the sluggish start, as each side seemed to simply lack energy early. Memphis did not crack double digits until the 14:34 mark in the first half, and ECU did not get there until eight minutes later. A 12-0 Tigers run mid-way through the half felt like the precursor to a blowout, but a late surge sent the Pirates to the locker rooms down only six.
The visitors refused to go away after the half. Every time Memphis looked poised to put together a run to seal the deal, ECU continued to answer right back with tough bucket after tough bucket. Despite trailing by as much as 16, it never felt like they were out of it.
Down the stretch, freshman guard Tristen Newton’s 23-point career night nearly carried the Pirates to victory. However, Precious Achiuwa’s 24-point, 12-rebound double-double along with 16 more from Boogie Ellis was too much for the visitors to overcome as Memphis went on to evade catastrophe and pick up a season-saving 77-73 win.
“Very happy to get a win,” said Penny Hardaway, head coach of the Tigers basketball team. “We had big leads both times and just stopped doing the things that we needed to do to push the lead out further. It just seems like once we get a lead guys start trying things. From these games, I’m hoping that we’re learning from them and that we can finish games out stronger than we did tonight.”
After an offseason full of talk about wanting all the smoke and pursuing a championship, the heavy scrutiny they have faced should come as no shock to Hardaway and these Tigers. All they can control, however, is what they have in front of them.
“Long as we get a win, it’s by any means necessary,” Hardaway said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s by one or by 30.”
One of the key reasons this Tigers season has not gone how it was expected is the lack of experience in crunch-time moments for some of the younger players. While the talent has always been there, the execution has been flawed at times. At this point in the year, though, with everything at stake, the excuses will eventually have to stop.
“Me personally, I don’t want to keep using the same excuse in terms of saying we’re too young,” Achiuwa said. “We have five games left I believe. We can’t keep using the same excuse. Freshmen at this point have to become sophomores and sophomores have to become juniors.”
While Memphis may be satisfied to escape with a victory, they cannot afford to play how they did against the Pirates on Saturday in their matchup with Houston. Kelvin Sampson’s team is one of the grittiest teams in the country, and they will be eager to stifle Memphis on its home floor.
Tip-off is set for Feb. 22 at 1 p.m. at the FedExForum.