Maybe it was the pregame news that Malcolm Dandridge would sit due to injury. Maybe it was the botched tip-off. Maybe it was just the 3 p.m. start time.
Whatever the case, something just felt off about Memphis the minute they took the floor Saturday against South Florida.
Precious Achiuwa and Lester Quinones each picked up two quick fouls and had to go the bench. The offense looked out of sorts most of the period. Despite only turning it over four times, a rhythm never was truly established. Outside of Tyler Harris providing a spark from beyond the arc, nothing was too inspiring about the three-point lead they took into the half.
Coming out of the break, it was evident the Bulls were determined to be the aggressors. And for the most part, Memphis let them do exactly that.
The South Florida lead swelled to as much as nine before a late surge provided a glimmer of hope for the 17,000 packed inside FedExForum. In the end, however, with Achiuwa and Lance Thomas both leaving late with injuries, the deck was just too stacked against them for the Tigers to complete the comeback.
A 75-73 short-handed home loss to a team with a losing record is about as close to a worst-case scenario at this point in the year as Memphis could have asked for.
“You have to tip your hat to South Florida,” Penny Hardaway said. “They came in our building and got a tough win. Just had an eerie feeling before the game that they were just hungry to come in and do whatever it took. We didn’t get it done. We got into foul trouble in the first half that kind of started our downfall as a team. It was an ugly-game all around for us.”
It is easy to try to make excuses for this young Memphis team. They were down four out of five members of the frontcourt by the end of this one. They have not really had the full cast together much at all this season.
Regardless, the selection committee will not care, and neither will the rest of the country. They still have time to correct course, but an already slim margin for error just became razor thin.
“We’ve had to overcome a lot of obstacles,” Tyler Harris said. “Everybody knows what happened earlier this season. Right now, later in the season, we’ve got guys going out. You can’t really make excuses right now. You just have to keep fighting. Keep playing hard.”
An already daunting schedule just got a whole lot more imposing. Road games at Cincinnati, UConn, SMU and Houston all loom in the next three weeks. Remaining united and uplifting each-other through adversity is the only way they stand a chance.
“Stay positive and stay together,” Hardaway said. “We’re going to keep fighting because that’s what our culture is. We're a family. We’re going to keep fighting and staying together. That’s all we can do right now. It’s tough, but not impossible.”
They will get their first chance to bounce back Thursday at Cincinnati. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. at Fifth Third Arena.