In one of their more serious non-conference tests of the year, the Memphis Tigers welcomed the, at the time, 4-0 Ole Miss Rebels to FedExForum Saturday. After an unimpressive win over Little Rock earlier in the week, Penny Hardaway’s squad could not afford to show up with anything but their best if they wanted to avoid a disappointing early-season loss.
The Rebs got off to a scorching start from deep, draining five of their first six three point attempts. Memphis struggled to connect from three, but aggressive play from Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries kept them afloat until the crowd came alive late in the half. A 7-0 run sent the Tigers to the locker rooms with a 45-38 lead.
Coming out of the break, Memphis continued to find good shots and grew their lead out to 14, but the visitors fought back into it behind a strong effort on the offensive glass. Ole Miss kept it competitive throughout and gave the Tigers a late scare, but Achiuwa was simply too dominant as he went on to record his second straight double-double with 25 points and 11 rebounds. D.J. Jeffries added 23 of his own and four boards, and Tyler Harris chipped in 15 with three threes. Memphis improved to 5-1 on the season with the 87-86 win.
The freshman really needed this one.
It has been a tough month for Hardaway and this program. The James Wiseman saga combined with the loss to Oregon and the intense national scrutiny, has drastically taken away from a season that was supposed to be the return to prominence for Tigers basketball.
Tyler Harris before the start of a play could have felt like a gut punch for a team that is so reliant upon freshmen. Overcoming a solid SEC foe is a huge boost of confidence for a team that really needed it after all the outside negativity they have dealt with the past few weeks. It did not come without a cost, however, as freshman guard Lester Quinones missed the second half with a hand injury.
“I’m very proud of the young team,” Hardaway said. “Basically, just kind of growing up right before our eyes. Couldn’t have been more proud of everything that happened tonight. To be a young team, especially after Lester got hurt and couldn’t come back, the troops rallied and pulled a huge win out.”
X-factor of the game
While the duo of Jeffries and Achiuwa came up big on Saturday, it was sophomore guard Alex Lomax who made the difference. He finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists and always seemed to calm everyone else down whenever he was on the floor. On a team sorely lacking in experience, Lomax’s knowledge of Hardaway’s system and steadying leadership will be huge as the season wears on.
“At some point in the game, we were kind of getting a little wild,” Lomax said. “So, I was just telling myself that we have to calm down, listen to coach and run some sets. The ball was in my hands towards the end of the shot clock and I just happened to make a couple good plays at the right times.”
Moving forward, it will not get any easier for Memphis. They will travel to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York for a Thanksgiving Day matchup with NC State, yet another stiff test against a likely NCAA tournament team.
Tip-off against the Wolfpack is set for 3 p.m. Thursday.