One down, four to go for the Tigers bid to receive the automatic qualification for the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers defeated the Tulane Green Wave 83-68, advancing to the second round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
Before tipoff, much of the lower bowl and club levels were a sea of blue and white — no small feat, given a 2 p.m. start time on a work day. And as Tigers Head Coach Penny Hardaway walked onto the court during the last minutes before the opening tipoff, the pro-Memphis crowd gave Hardaway a standing ovation.
“I was actually shocked with the ovation. That was great,” Hardaway said after the game. “They showed their appreciation. It was a warm welcome. It got my juices going. That ovation, to me, means we know how serious it is for you guys and we are here to support you.”
Hardaway scored his first conference tournament win. He said he had no butterflies going in.
“This is my time of the year. I look forward to this time of the year,” he said. “I try to stay as calm as possible. I feel that I have to think the entire game out.”
Memphis did not want to expend too much energy in trying to put away the Tulane Green Wave in their opening round game. The Tigers swept the season series with the Green Wave and Tulane did not win a game in the regular season in conference play (0-16).
In the first half, the Tigers got production from all players and did not have to rely on Jeremiah Martin to carry the load. Mike Parks Jr. had an explosive first half, scoring 10 points and grabbing seven rebounds. The Tigers went into halftime with a 52-38 lead.
“Mike came out and played phenomenal,” Hardaway said. “This was his best game of the year by far. Thirteen rebounds is definitely his high on the year, with 14 points. I might have sat him too long, trying to get Isiah Maurice going. We are going to need both of those guys the entire tournament.”
Despite not having a conference win this season, the Tulane student section band choose to taunt Harris in the first half, heckling him with jokes about his height. Harris responded with three 3-pointers for nine first half points.
“It always feels good to hit threes and get the crowd into the game,” Harris said afterwards. “It’s the kind of game we had to grind out at the end. Me and the freshmen came off the bench and had an immediate impact. That is what coach has been preaching to us about. I feel pretty good about the win. It is always great to get the first win out of the way.”
Hardaway said he never underestimated that Tulane would give their best effort.
“It was one of those games with Tulane coming in here with nothing to lose. They haven’t won a conference game all year. They had a week to prepare for us. They had something going where they wanted someone else to beat them,” Hardaway said. “We got off slow. We pushed away and then got lax. When we went up 20, we got away from our game plan. Luckily we were able to pull the win out.”
Martin was the leader in scoring with 21 points. Kyvon Davenport had a stellar second half scoring 12 of his 17 points in the second half. Harris finished with 12 points. Caleb Daniels and Blake Paul did all they could to keep the Green Wave in the game. Daniels finished with 19 points and Paul had 12 points.
Next up for the Tigers will be the University of Central Florida Golden Knights. The game will be played on Friday March 15 at 1 pm central or 30 minutes after Houston and UCONN game. The game can be seen on ESPNU.