Houston, we have a problem.
The Memphis Tigers bowed out of the American Athletic Conference tournament in heartbreaking fashion over the weekend, falling to the Cougars 76-74.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Penny Hardaway said. “It got kind of out-of-hand in the first half. We went into halftime and made some adjustments and came out and did some good things. We had a chance to win the game at the end and just couldn’t pull it through. I’m proud of the boys’ effort for getting back into the game.”
The difference was made at the free-throw line, where the Tigers shot a porous 15/27 for the game. Memphis shot a better percentage from the field than Houston, had the same number of offensive rebounds and more steals. However, the Cougars knocked down 86% of their tries from the charity stripe while Memphis was only able to convert 56%. While they were plagued by issues at the line for most of the season, some of their worst showings came when it mattered most; and it cost them.
“It’s truly unbelievable,” Hardaway said. “With the way these guys get shots up every day and get free throws up every day, you have to make your free throws. To go 15/27 and lose by two points, we’re battling. You make those free throws; you probably win by four or five points.”
With the loss, the Tigers were effectively eliminated from contention for a spot in the NCAA tournament. While the season did not end where they were hoping, there is no denying the team we saw in the second half of the season made significant strides from where they were in December. They will just have to wait one more year to snap that tournament drought.
“We started off very slow and just couldn’t get our footing,” Hardaway said. “It took us a very long time to try to come together as a team. Once we got into a rhythm, we went into the Covid pause. That held us back a little bit but we came out of that playing really well. We lost a tough game at Houston at the buzzer. We started off well in this tournament against UCF, and it just seemed like you never wanted it to end. Today, after losing this game, it’s just heartbreaking.”
Regardless of the outcome of this season, it is clear Memphis is on the verge of something special. As long as Hardaway can keep this group intact, they have a chance to make some serious noise both nationally and in the American Athletic Conference next season.
Despite failing to reach the NCAA tournament, the Tigers season is not over. They were chosen as a number one seed in the National Invitation Tournament and are set to take on Dayton in the first round. Tip-off against the Flyers is set for Saturday at 11 a.m.