A thunderous Thompson-Boling crowd serenaded Penny Hardaway and his team with a chorus of boos as the second-year coach made his way to the floor prior to tip-off.
Feeding off the emotion inside the building, the Vols quickly raced out to a 15-5 lead behind three triples from Josiah-Jordan James. However, after starting ice cold offensively, Memphis was able to speed up the pace and took a one-point lead into the halftime break.
Coming out of the half, the ugly basketball continued as neither side was able to find much of a flow on offense. The lead swayed back-and-forth as foul calls racked up, but it was a pair of Alex Lomax free throws late that put the game on ice as Memphis went on to pick up a 51-47 victory and end Tennessee’s 31-game home winning streak.
A year after he made headlines for his questionable criticism of Vols coach Rick Barnes, Hardaway went to Knoxville and picked up the biggest victory of his coaching career. Tyler Harris led the way with a team-high 11 points, including some big-time makes from beyond the arc.
Top options for Tennessee struggle
Despite their struggles this year, Memphis has consistently shown their ability to turn up the pressure on defense and keep games close even when the offense is struggling to get anything going. The idea for the most part, has usually been to take away the opposition’s top option and force someone else to step up and beat them.
Against the Vols, it was obvious that slowing down the backcourt duo of Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden would be pivotal for the Tigers to escape with a win. While a late Bowden three did tie the game, that was one of only two field goals the senior connected on all game. Combined, Turner and Bowden finished 3-21 from the field. Collectively, the Vols shot a putrid 25% from the field and never truly comfortable after the game’s first ten minutes.
“We stuck to our gameplan on Lamonte and it worked,” Hardaway said. “Those are two terrific players. Two senior guards. To have them shoot like this, I don’t think they’re ever going to shoot like this again in their careers. Everything worked in our favor. We tried to make everything hard for those two guys because we knew if they were going to win, it was going to be because of those two guys.”
Based off Barnes’ postgame comments, it seems that Hardaway’s strategy was effective enough.
“I don’t think our offense was good at any point in time,” Barnes said.
Young group earns their stripes
Despite their #13 national ranking, ESPN’s predictions heavily favored the home side. In an extremely hostile environment, down two starters, a squad comprised primarily of freshmen went into Knoxville and came away with a win. The moment never seemed too big for these players, whether it was Damion Baugh’s late three that silenced the crowd or Boogie Ellis maintaining composure and avoiding a turnover when trapped in the corner. They just never seemed rattled.
“It means a lot,” Hardaway said. “We had a full week to prepare for them, so this win was big for us for a lot of reasons. We weren’t picked to win. To come into a building like this and get this win is huge for our city and our team.”
Although emotions will clearly be running high after the huge road win, the season still has over three months left. As the return of James Wiseman and Lester Quinones looms, Memphis should be feeling confident in what they can accomplish down the line. Until then, however, they must take it game-by-game and not overlook anyone on the schedule. They’ll be back in action at FedExForum against Jackson State on Dec. 21.