Let’s start with what is self-evident to Memphis Tigers head basketball coach Penny Hardaway: “We’re Memphis, of course we have to win (this week’s American Athletic Conference Tournament title) to get in (the NCAA Tournament). Nobody is going to give us anything.”
That was after the No. 7-ranked Houston Cougars took away the Tigers’ bid at forcing overtime and securing the high-caliber win (67-64) Memphis needed on its NCAA Tournament resume. With 1.7 seconds left in the game, Houston’s Tramon Mark took the inbound pass, dribbled and heaved a 30-foot shot that became a buzzer-beater when it banged off the backboard into the net.
“We have shown that we are a tournament team,” Hardaway said. “No one comes into Houston and plays the way that we played with 1.7 seconds left and not be an NCAA tournament team.”
A win in the regular-season finale, according to some college basketball observers, would have put the Tigers into the March Madness field for the first time since 1914. And a victory would have moved Memphis into the No. 3 slot in this week’s AAC tournament.
The game had a lot of off-the-court tension attached to it long before tipoff. It originally was scheduled to be played in Memphis. However, COVID-19 protocols established at the start of the season dictated the switch to Houston.
“It was a tough environment on the road against a top ten team,” Hardaway said.
“I felt we had a great game plan, but that game plan could not be effective if we could not rebound the basketball. We knew we would make them miss plenty of shots. But what they prepare to do on a daily basis is offensive rebound and that’s what they did again.
“We fell short of doing that (rebounding) and therefore we have a loss, another loss against this team.”
His post-game message to the team: “To learn from this game. They (Houston) are a team that plays hard for 40 minutes. They don’t take plays off. We have to get to that level. We are very talented. We take too many plays off.”
Memphis got off to a good start, going on a 7-0 run to take the early lead. The pressure of the Tigers’ defense made the Cougars uncomfortable on offense, resulting in turnovers.
As the first half unfolded, the Tigers were in control until the fouls began to mount up. Every starter finished the half with at least two fouls. Notably, center Moussa Cissé and forward DeAndre Williams only played five minutes and six minutes respectively in the first half.
Prior to the game, Hardaway had a conversation with Williams on controlling how he play against Houston, telling him that he was too aggressive at times and that he could not get into foul trouble against the Cougars.
In the second half, Williams stepped up to for the Tigers when he was in the game. He scored 11 points and ended the night with three rebounds and four assists.
The Tigers were called for 15 personal fouls, with Houston making 12 of 18 free throws in the first half. The Cougars led 39-35 at the halftime break.
The second half started like the first, with Memphis hot, taking the lead with a 7-0 spurt. In the back-and-forth affair that ensued, Memphis’ largest lead was seven points, Houston’s six.
Boogie Ellis, Memphis’ leading scorer for the last few games, had an off-shooting game before hitting on a huge three-pointer to tie the game at 64 with 1.7 seconds left.
Lester Nolley II was Memphis’ leading scorer with 14 points. Quinones had 11 points and Malcolm Dandridge contributed nine points and five rebounds.
The Tigers will play a second-round game against the winner of the Tulsa-UCF matchup on Friday (March 12). Memphis will play at approximately 9 p.m. CDT after the conclusion of the Houston game at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.