Prior to beginning of the American Athletic Conference tournament, the Memphis Tigers knew that they would have to win four straight games to clinch their spot in the NCAA tournament. Saturday, in front of an electric crowd, they faced perhaps the largest obstacle in the way of their goal in the form of the top seeded Houston Cougars, who entered the game 31-2 and ranked 11th in the AP top 25.
Early on, Houston guard Corey Davis Jr led a well-rounded Cougars attack that used its length and athleticism to spread the ball and get easy buckets. Meanwhile, the Tigers struggled from the floor and went into the locker rooms trailing by 10.
With their NCAA hopes riding on the final 20 minutes, Memphis displayed the sense of desperation that coach Penny Hardaway has been yearning for since November. It was evident coming out of the break that the plan of attack would be to drive to the rim early and often, and the Tigers managed to get to the line 14 times in the second period. However, they did themselves no favors on the defensive end, sending the Cougars to the stripe for 21 attempts of their own.
While they were able to get to the line with ease for most of this one, free throws were the only shots that the Tigers could knock down consistently. For the game, they only managed to convert on 23% of their field goal attempts, including a dreadful 4-17 afternoon from deep.
Davis Jr, the other first-team all-conference guard featured in this one, looked impressive as he poured in a team-high 17 points. Despite their struggles from the free throw line (14-27 as a group), Houston managed to escape with a narrow three-point victory to secure their place in Sunday’s championship game.
Jeremiah Martin, who lead the way once again for the Tigers, struggled to find a rhythm and appeared to be visibly frustrated at various points in the game. The senior guard had one of his rougher shooting days of his otherwise outstanding collegiate career, going 5-24 from the field, but he still managed to finish with 23 points in what will be his last AAC contest.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Martin said. “I don’t question God. He knows my path, so it is what it is.”
Although their hopes of making the NCAA tournament have been dashed, this loss does not necessarily mean that this group of seniors have played their last games for the University of Memphis. There’s still a chance that Penny Hardaway’s team receives an invitation to the NIT, a smaller national tournament comprised of 32 teams who failed to make it to the big dance.
“I definitely want an NIT bid,” Hardaway said after the 61-58 defeat. “I want these seniors to have an opportunity to still win a championship. We want our season extended. We feel like we deserve one. We played a tough schedule and really didn’t fare well against the bigger teams, but we’re playing the best basketball that we could play.”
While they may have come up short on the quest for four wins in four days, this team fought hard to the very end. As they walked off the court, fans around the arena rose to their feet and showered the players and coaches alike with one last ovation.
If this really is the last time that fans get to see the likes of Brewton, Parks Jr, Thornton, Davenport, and Martin suit up in a Tiger uniform, the way they battled valiantly until the very final buzzer will forever leave this group etched firmly in program lore for their resilience. For Martin, he knows how he wants his legacy to be perceived.
“Somebody who was loyal to the city, came out and played hard, got better every year,” he said. “Just loyal, to be honest. I stayed home, could have done anything else, but I felt like this is where I wanted to be and give my all to my city.”
Hardaway was brought in to restore the city’s faith in a program that had been stuck in place for the better part of the last decade. While they may not have won as many games as some would have hoped, this bunch played hard and never had an ounce of quit in them. After all, that’s all that the fanbase wanted, right?