Coming off an 83-68 first round victory over Tulane, the Memphis Tigers were back in action on Friday against the 4th seeded UCF Knights. In their last trip to the Bluff City, the Knights were blown out by 20 points in what amounted to their most lopsided loss of a 23-7 season that included wins over top seeds Cincinnati and Houston. With a spot to face the first-place Cougars in the semifinals on the line, neither team could afford to show up with anything but their best effort.
In what was a very emotional first half, the Tigers initially struggled dealing with the size of the Knights 7-foot 6, center, Tacko Fall. The senior big man from Senegal was able to use his height to control the defensive glass and convert easy buckets on the other end. However, after getting Fall into foul trouble, the tides turned. Without the tallest college basketball player in the country on the floor, Memphis was able to penetrate the lane more frequently and get kick-outs for easier shots.
After taking a ten-point lead into the halftime break, it was more of the same in the second for the Tigers, who rode one of their best showings of the entire year to a 77-59 quarterfinals win. Kyvon Davenport, who finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, shined on the defensive end as he flew around all over the floor and played with a contagious level of intensity.
“Doing whatever it takes and playing desperate is where we are right now,” coach Penny Hardaway said. “We know the road that we have to take, and we understand that every possession counts and we’re out there playing like it now.”
Isaiah Maurice, who transferred into the program after the hiring of Hardaway, played his best game in a Memphis uniform and led all scorers with 21.
“My main focus was just coming in and producing,” Maurice said after the game. “We played this team twice before, and my main focus was just to not make the same mistakes that I did.”
Jeremiah Martin, whose 13-point outing included 11 made free-throws and a woeful 1-6 shooting from the floor, did not have his best game by his recent standards. For Hardaway, it must be an encouraging sign that his team was able to win so comfortably against a quality opponent despite his first-team all-conference guard not looking his usual self.
“These two guys [Davenport and Maurice] playing like this, Jeremiah hasn’t had a great scoring game, but he’s gotten to the free throw line and made winning plays,” Hardaway said. “So, we get Kareem, Jeremiah, and these two guys continuing to play the way they are playing, it will be tough to stop us.”
With their place in the semifinal now secured, the Memphis Tigers should be feeling good about themselves. However, their next opponent may prove to be their toughest test yet.
In their lone regular season matchup, a 90-77 home win for Houston, the Tigers struggled to contain the Cougars’ guards, whom as a group make up one of the best back courts in not only the AAC, but the entire nation. Corey Davis Jr, Armoni Brooks, Galen Robinson Jr, Nate Hinton and Dejon Jarreau are all highly-capable and are a threat to light up the scoreboard on any given contest.
“We hit the reset button as soon as we leave here,” Hardaway said. “We want to enjoy this. The guys deserve to enjoy this. As soon as we leave, we are in the mode of we have Houston and we understand what- that's the beast. They have earned everything they have gotten, the best record in our league, first place, the top coach. He [Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson] got the award for the coach in our conference, we know what it is. As soon as we leave here, we focus on them. It’s a different game. They are relentless and we understand that.”
With a spot in the conference championship game on the line, the stakes will be immensely high for both Hardaway and his players, who have said all year that they believe they can play with anyone in the country. Against a 30-2 Houston team, there won’t be a more appropriate time for them to prove it.