“When we look at this day a few years from now, it will be a legendary day,” said Memphis guard Alex Lomax, who played a pivotal role in helping the Tigers win the game that would make it so
With 13,264 as the announced attendance, the Tigers (6-2) played confidently from beginning to end in notching a 68-57 rivalry-game win over the Ole Miss Rebels at FedExForum on Saturday Night.
The Rebels of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) play their home games 85.4 miles away from Memphis in Oxford, Mississippi. And while they had a contingent of fans, FedExForum is Memphis’ house. The Tigers gave their fans plenty to shout about and their crowd returned the love.
Mentioning hometowners Lomax, a fifth-year player, and senior Malcolm Dandridge, Memphis native son Hardaway recalled such crowds over the years.
“It has thinned out for this group. They haven’t seen those types of crowds. I am happy when they get a chance to see how Memphis basketball really is during these rivalry games.”
The win in the white-out game was the Tigers’ fourth straight victory and came as Memphis entered the toughest part of its non-conference schedule. It was the first of four matchups against SEC teams, with road games against Auburn (Dec. 10) and Alabama (Dec. 13) ahead of hosting Texas A&M (Dec. 17).
“We are winning ugly. The defense is carrying us,” said Hardaway. Defense travels. We are waiting on the offense. We are winning these games against good teams with defense, beautiful defense.”
Memphis’ start was blistering. Lomax led the first-half scoring with 10 points on five-of-eight shooting. The Tigers, whose lead grew to 22 in the opening half, shot 49 percent from the field as the defense kept the Rebels off balance. Ole Miss shot 24 percent in the first half.
“You have to give Memphis credit. They came and popped up early,” said Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis. “We settled early on offense. We couldn’t do anything around the rim. (Memphis’) De’Andre Williams dominated around the rim.”
Memphis scored 26 points in the paint. Williams (17 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists) had 10 first-half rebounds, responding to Hardaway’s expressed desire for him to up his rebound count in the game.
“I am so glad to see this De’Andre Williams back,” Hardaway said. “I have been challenging him because I know he has it in him. He couldn’t have picked a better game to do it. His energy was not going to let us lose. The same with Alex Lomax.”
The Rebels scored the first four points after the break, trimming Memphis’ lead to 10 (36-26). The Tigers regrouped and pushed their advantage to 17 (45-28) with 15:09 left in the game.
The Tigers would continue to dominate in the paint and force the Rebels into turnovers. With 7:36 left the Tigers held a (57-42) lead.
Ole Miss (6-2) narrowed the gap to nine points (62-53) as the game clock ticked under three minutes but the Tigers pushed back, holding off the Rebels’ late-game rally.
The Rebels were led by former Whitehaven player Mathew Murrell (13 points). Theo Akwuba and Myles Burns each scored 10 points for Ole Miss as the Rebels shot better in the second half (43 percent).
In addition to Williams, the Tigers had two others in double figures, with Lomax and Kendric Davis scoring 14.
The Tigers outrebounded the Rebels 42-39. They committed 11 turnovers and improved their free-throw shooting, making 13 of 16 (81 percent).
Asked if the offense was back to where he wanted it, Hardaway said, “I can honestly say it isn’t there. Guys are making timely plays. When it gets there, you will know. There will be more movement.”
Williams said he knew it was going to be a big game for the Tigers.
“I made sure I came out and gave it my all,” he said. “We have to show the world we can compete with the best of them. We have heard what type of players we have. We have a lot of confidence.”
In this, his last season, Lomax was mindful about not looking forward.
“We have to stay connected. It is easy to break apart when we lose games. We are living every day one day at a time,” he said.
“We are enjoying the moment, one day at a time.”
The Little Rock Trojans visit FedExForum on Tuesday (Dec. 6), with tipoff set for 7 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN+.