When the No. 3 ranked team in the nation rolls in with the intention of beating you on your home court, a preferred strategy is to hit first — and hard — and try to control things from there.
Of course, you’d like to have an electric atmosphere to draw energy from as you seek to offset a noticeable skills gap.
Underdogs at home at the FedExForum on Saturday, the University of Memphis Tigers reveled in the electricity of a crowd counted at 18,528 as they faced regional rival Tennessee but could not overcome the talent-heavy Vols, losing 102-92.
“You have to give Tennessee credit, they came out and hit first, got up on us and never looked back,” Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway said. “We worked all week to be able to hit first and us not look back. That is why the are ranked No. 3 in the nation.
“We have got to be able to put two halves together. When you give up 102 points on your own home court you are not going to win too many of those.”
The crowd wasn’t the largest to ever see a Tigers basketball game, but it was close. The March 7, 2009 match-up against Georgetown drew 18,864. Saturday’s attendance did top the 18,389 total logged when the No.2- ranked Vols faced the No. 1-ranked Tigers on February 23, 2008.
“We knew coming in it would be a big game for them. We knew it would be a sellout crowd,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said.
“I understand Memphis basketball. I grew up watching Memphis State and I recruited here. I know this is a great basketball town. I know that it is a rivalry with the success that this basketball team has had and the success that Tennessee has had.”
The Vols got off to a fast start behind senior guard Admiral Schofield’s two three-point baskets, jumping out to a 10-5 lead. The Tigers cut it down to 28-22 with 8:15 left in the half.
The Vols struck back with a 15-3 run, pushing the gap to a first-half high 18 points (43-25) on yet another three-point basket by Schofield. The Tigers shot a dismal 27 percent from the floor in the first half.
The Vols had a huge inside presence with Grant Williams, who led all scorers with 14 points on 4 for 8 shooting at the break. He was a perfect six for six from the free throw line. Schofield went into the half with nine points. The Vols made six three-pointers in the game and 17 free throw attempts in the first half.
The taller, bigger and more talented Vols kept the Tigers in check all game. When the Tigers made a run the Volunteers showed poised and answered the challenge.
Memphis did not quit and the effort of Kyvon Davenport kept the game close. He finished with a career high 31 points and 11 rebounds. Davenport scored 26 points in the second half.
“The team needed me,” he said. “Coach got on me at the half. My teammates just got me going.”
As the clock ticked down, tempers flared. Jordon Bone of Tennessee and Memphis’ Alex Lomax and Jeremiah Martin all received technical fouls with 47 seconds left in the game.
The game was littered with fouls. Tennessee was called for 22 fouls and the Tigers were whistled for 35. The Vols had 46 free throw attempts compared to 22 for the Tigers.
During the post-game interviews, Davenport and Mike Parks Jr. did not complain, instead saying the Tigers needed to have been more aggressive as a team. Tyler Harris, who has been the Tigers’ leading scorer, was the target of the Vols defense. He never got into any type of offensive rhythm, finishing with 10 points.
Schofield and Williams led the way for the Vols. Schofield had 29 points and Williams dominated the inside with 19 points. Kyle Alexander, a force on both ends, had 10 points, 4 blocks and 9 rebounds.
“I think we have a lot room for growth,” Barnes said of the team that beat then-No. 1 Gonzaga. “We were trying to work through foul trouble all day. We were tentative, and you got to give them credit. They were driving the ball hard.
“We never got into the flow we wanted to be in defensively. We had to play more zone than we wanted to.”
Hardaway said the Tigers weren’t afraid of the Vols’ size.
“They were more aggressive the whole game. We out-rebounded them on the offensive glass. I felt our speed did bother them in the back court. We just didn’t make open shots.”
Parks: “You dream about this and you just have to go out there and perform.”
Davenport: “It was great. It is something that most people don’t get a chance to experience. It is a great feeling to go out and compete in front of that type of crowd.”
The Tigers (5-5) will face the Little Rock Trojans at the FedExForum on Wednesday (December 19) at 7 p.m. The game can be seen on CW30.
Gallery (Photos: Warren Roseborough)