Jeremiah Martin got a message from head coach Penny Hardaway: Be aggressive on both ends of the court. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Now that the University of Memphis Tigers have successfully navigated the HBCU part of their basketball schedule, the next stretch of games will be the measure of where they stand in the American Athletic Conference hierarchy.

After another naggingly slow start last Saturday against Florida A&M and with the crowd put at 14,201, the Tigers eventually worked themselves into a pace that allowed them to run away from the Rattlers 96-65 at FedExForum. It was last non-conference test of the regular season.

On Thursday night, the Shockers of Wichita State will be at FedExForum looking to knock off the Tigers in what also will be their conference opener. First-year head coach Penny Hardaway has said the UofM can challenge for an AAC top spot, which means the Tigers (8-5) will have to get better.

“We know we are a good team, but we can go to another level,” point guard and former Memphis-area high school star Tyler Harris said after the FAMU victory. “It is still early and there is a lot of time for improvement. I can’t say how good we can be, but we have a lot of potential.”

Coach Penny Hardaway had some choice words for his team at halftime against FAMU. (Photo: Terry Davis)

That’s potential as in “latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.” And that development has got to feature getting off to faster starts.

Clearly not thrilled with how his team started against FAMU, Hardaway was visibly upset with the defense and about the Tigers’ effort on the boards in the first half.

“We started off giving up a three pointer and fouled a shooter on a three-pointer, which jumpstarted our first half off pretty badly. We regrouped at halftime and played a spectacular second half,” he said.

“You can tell when the team is not in tune. They were not thinking about basketball in the first half. In the second half, we got locked in on the keys of what we were trying to do. The bench is a good teacher.”

The Tigers have scored 90 or more points for five consecutive games. That had not happened since the 1974-75 season. They lead the AAC in scoring with an average of 85.08 points per game. On the flip side, they are dead last in scoring defense with 77.23 points per game.

Against FAMU, Kareem Brewton Jr. got the start at one of the guard positions in place of freshman Antwann Jones. Jones was taken out of the starting lineup because he was late for a team function. Neither Brewton nor Jones got out to great scoring start in the first half. Brewton had 2 points and Jones had 3 points.

The largest lead of the half was nine points and that was the margin (39-30) at halftime. At the break, Harris led the team with 11 points. Isaiah Maurice was second with 9 points and was free of the foul trouble that has affected his playing time.

The Tigers shot 59.1 percent from the field before intermission but allowed the Rattlers to shoot 47.6 percent. The Tigers had seven turnovers in the first 15 minutes of the game and only picked up one more during the rest of the half.

Hardaway’s halftime talk ignited his team. The Tigers quickly built on their halftime lead and had a 58-40 lead with 14:09 left in the game.

The talent of the Tigers took over from there. Senior Jeremiah Martin connected on two consecutive three pointers and the rest of the team followed his lead. With 9:58 left in the game the Tigers went on an 18-7 run to put the game out of reach.

“Coach told me I need to take over the game on both ends,” Martin said. “I am just trying to do whatever it takes to win the game for us. … Coach challenged us and whoever wasn’t going to play hard (was) going to be pulled fast.”

Five Tigers finished with double-digit scoring. Martin led with 22 points, followed by Harris with 16. Raynere Thornton and Isaiah Maurice each had 12 points and Antwann Jones finished with 11.

NOTES

  • Tipoff is 8:30 p.m. for the game against the Shockers of Wichita State and will be shown on the CBS Sports Network.
  • The NCAA has denied the UofM’s waiver request seeking to have transfer Lance Thomas eligible to play immediately instead of sitting out the year. The university has appealed the decision.
  • During a timeout, a fan was given an opportunity to make a three-pointer and have his mortgage paid for a year. He hit the shot.