With their season at a crossroads, the Memphis Tigers (14-5,3-3 American Athletic Conference) returned home Saturday for another league matchup with SMU (15-4,5-2 AAC).
One of the keys coming in was seeing how this young group would respond after the debacle in Tulsa. A win could serve as a course correction while a loss would only mean more adversity for a team that has already faced plenty of it.
From the get-go, it was clear that Penny Hardaway’s team was not going to let Wednesday’s result hinder their confidence.
Precious Achiuwa once again was a force inside, and Boogie Ellis drained a pair of slump-busting triples. Much to the delight of Hardaway and his staff, the Tigers turned the ball over only twice in the first and went into the halftime break with a 42-31 lead.
The Mustangs wasted little time fighting their way back in the second, quickly narrowing the deficit down to single digits. Despite Memphis holding the lead for 36 minutes, a 15-0 SMU run over the last 5:32 was enough to steal a 74-70 win for the visitors.
“The ball movement in the first half was really good,” Hardaway said. “We were decisive on what we wanted to do. Guys were aggressive. We were getting what we wanted. Second half, it became a little more stagnant. They went zone, and it wasn’t like the same type of zone as Tulsa. The middle was wide-open and we just didn’t take advantage of what was going on.”
Fresh off his jersey retirement ceremony at Olive Branch High School Friday night, D.J. Jeffries led the way with 18 points.
The much-anticipated bounce-back game from Boogie Ellis finally came as the former Duke commit went on to finish with 14 points, including a deep three from the logo at half court that pushed the Tiger lead to 12 with 7 minutes remaining.
They only scored four points the rest of the way.
Achiuwa, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half, seemed poised to impose his will all afternoon. Yet, he only took two shots the entire second period.
“I wish I could say we made some big adjustment on him,” Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich said. “He’s a tremendous talent. Heck, I respect them in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of guys that are hard to defend. We just challenged everybody.”
For a program that began the season with what felt like legitimate championship aspirations, Saturday’s loss is a brutal reminder of just how hard it is to win at the collegiate level.
What makes this outcome sting even more is that it simply slipped away.
Memphis shot 49% from the field. They only coughed the ball up 11 times. They had more assists, more steals and more blocks. The only statistical categories the Mustangs had the edge in were rebounds, a battle they won 34-27, and the most important stat of all: the win.
“We still have a season to play,” Hardaway said. “Whatever the fans want to do. Whoever wants to be with us, be with us, but we’re gonna keep riding and we’re gonna keep working. It’s not just about us winning every game. It’s about being there in the good and the bad.”
Moving ahead, the schedule won’t get any easier. They’ll now travel to Orlando to take on UCF and try to rebound after another gut-wrenching defeat.
Tip is set for Wednesday night at 6 p.m.
D.J. Jeffries standing as the SMU player is at the free throw line. Jeffries ended with a team-high 18 points in the 74-70 loss at FedExForum on Jan. 25, 2020.
Precious Achiuwa dunks the ball with SMU defenders watching. Achiuwa ended with 15 points and nine rebounds in the 74-70 loss against the Mustangs
Boogie Ellis fighting past a SMU defender. Ellis had a bounce back performance against SMU with 14 points on 50 percent shooting in the 74-70 loss.