When pursuing a dream in the game of basketball moments come when the end is nearer than the beginning and the reality of the journey causes the dreamer to reflect. Such was the case for the Tigers’ Kendric Davis after Memphis held off the Cincinnati Bearcats 76-73 at FedExForum on Sunday afternoon.
Davis, the reigning American Athletic Conference (AAC) Most Valuable Player when he transferred to Memphis for the 2022-23 season, signed on with the Tigers wanting to play in the NCAA post-season tournament. As he has done all season, Davis came up big (22 points), helping Memphis hold off Cincinnati’s determined comeback bid and inching forward toward inclusion in the NCAA field.
“It means a lot,” said Davis, answering a question about getting a step closer to his NCAA goal. “Coach (Penny Hardaway) texted me this morning and said he promised me an NCAA appearance. I have not texted him back yet, because I was so anxious.
“I appreciate coach because we are close to making my dream come true.”
With the win, the Tigers (22-7, 12-4 AAC) will be seeded no lower than third in the upcoming AAC tournament in Fort Worth. Houston, the No. 1-ranked team in the country, has locked up the AAC regular-season title and the conference’s top seed in the post-season tournament.
Memphis is ahead of Tulane (10-5 AAC) in the conference race but has lost twice to the Green Wave. The Tigers end their season with a rematch against Houston after a road trip to play the SMU Mustangs in Dallas on Thursday.
The Tigers hosted Cincinnati on 901 Day suited in their blue Memphis State University throwback jerseys and with 12,211 fans eager for a win. With the victory, Hardaway notched his 22nd win of the season, matching his career-high as a coach.
While the number of wins is important, Hardaway said, “I am always trying to push for the NCAAs. I never take in what I am doing individually. It has been the players that have gotten me there. This year I thank the players for what I teach and turns into wins. I am thankful for that.”
The Tigers got off to a strong start against the Bearcats, leading 31-16 with under eight minutes to play in the first half. During one of their best offensive halves of the season, they only committed two turnovers. At the halftime break, Memphis led 41-30.
“We were playing freely,” said Hardaway. Alo (Alex Lomax) and KD (Kendric Davis) were controlling the flow. We got took high-percentage shots. For us, it was a monster game, because that is how we approached it. We did not end it the way we wanted to.”
Former Memphis guard Landers Nolley II, who starts for the Bearcats, was kept in check in the first half by the Tigers’ defense. He committed four turnovers and only had two points in the first half.
Nolley and the Bearcats were much more effective in the second half. He finished with 13 points and 6 rebounds. David DeJulius led Cincinnati with 16 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Cincinnati, which has lost several close games over the last three weeks, outrebounded the Tigers (39-29), which was a major factor in the Bearcats pulling within range of snatching the victory away from the Tigers. Cincinnati also connected on 10 three-pointers.
With Cincinnati threatening to turn their rally into a win, DeAndre Williams (21 points, 7 rebounds) came up with a big block in the paint at the end of the game.
“He had another good game,” said Hardaway. “He did not have many shots in the second half. I want him to play with freedom. DeAndre had a 21-point game and he did not shoot any free throws today.”
Williams said the Tigers still can “definitely be better. We haven’t put a full 40 minutes together yet. … We have to continue to grow from our mistakes and get better.”
Playing without Keonte Kennedy, who will miss the rest of the season with a broken hand, Memphis benefitted from the contributions of Elijah McCadden (eight points) and Damaria Franklin (nine points). Kennedy will miss the rest of the regular season after slamming a wall in frustration after the loss to Houston and breaking his hand. Johnathan Lawson, who continues to carve out a role for himself, connected on a big three-pointer in the second half.
In Dallas on Thursday, the Tigers will face an SMU that has been playing better of late. That game and the following against Houston will be emotion-testers for Davis, who starred at SMU before transferring to Memphis. Houston is his hometown.
“My last two games couldn’t be more emotional,” said Davis. “My energy is on 10. It is sad I only got one year here. I wished I played with these dudes forever. It is coming to an end and I am going to miss it.”
NOTE: The SMU game is set for Thursday at 8 p.m. CST on ESPN 2. Memphis will close the regular season at home against Houston on Sunday (March 5), with tipoff set for 11 p.m. on CBS.