With a stat line that read 10 points, nine assists, five steals and – most importantly – only one turnover, Memphis guard Alex Lomax was a model of productivity for the Tigers in their 66-59 win over the East Carolina Pirates at FedExForum on Saturday.
“Alex is built for these types of games,” said University of Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway. “That is why I laughed when people around the city started dogging him (Lomax) and talking about his offensive game. He is one of the best defensive guards in the country.
“When he’s a playmaker on the court and starts getting those assists, we are hard to beat. I built him to be this way. We are lucky to have him on our team.”
After pounding the Pirates earlier in the season, Hardaway figured it would not be as easy for the Tigers the second time around. Earlier, East Carolina played with only eight scholarship players and without their coach, who was sidelined by health and safety concerns.
“We had an opportunity to knock it out of the box,” Hardaway said. “We had some mishap defensive assignments. It kept them in the game. We got a little complacent.
“The team felt like we were going to beat them since we beat them by 30 in the first game. I am happy to have the win.”
Memphis (12-6, 8-3 American Athletic Conference), got off to the fast start desired and had a 10-4 lead in the first five minutes of the game thanks to good defense that triggered a 7-0 run. Memphis opened its largest lead of the half (21-8) with 11:02 left before the break. However, the Pirates, who were riding the positive vibes from a huge upset over the No. 5-ranked Houston Cougars, cut the deficit to two points (21-19) with 5:34 left in the half.
Three consecutive three-pointers by Landers Nolley II and Boogie Ellis pushed the Tigers to a 35-26 halftime advantage. Memphis connected on seven of its 11 three-point shots in the first half for a blistering 58 percent average.
East Carolina (8-7,3-7 AAC) came out of the locker room on fire, scoring the first eight points to make it 35-34. The Tigers’ Lester Quinones put an end to that run with a dazzling layup. Lomax followed with an intercepted pass that led to an assist on a dunk by Malcolm Dandridge, putting the Tigers ahead 39-34.
The Pirates took a 47-41 lead with 11:24 left in the game. Memphis responded with a 5-0 run by Lomax and pressure defense.
A few weeks ago, Lomax cut a lot of people out of his inner circle and that, he said, has helped his play on the court.
“It has done a tremendous job of keeping me focused and not worrying about the wrong things. I am happy at home and at the gym,” he said.
“There is a lot of positive energy in my life right now. I am playing at my best when I am just worrying about my team and not a lot about things not having to deal with basketball.”
D.J. Jeffries, who has been finishing better at the rim lately, was big down the stretch for Memphis as well.
“Coaches have been hard on me about coming to a jump stop. So instead of just going in there and just throwing up a shot, I have been going in there getting fouls and finishing,” said Jeffries. “I feel like I have been doing a better job with that.”
He’s also focused on keeping his energy on defense when the offense isn’t going.
“Our defense feeds into our offense. When we are hyped on defense, getting stops, it is easy for us to come down and get shots. When both are clicking, I feel we are unbeatable. We have to keep playing defense until offense gets going.”
Jeffries took note of the confidence Memphis guards have been showing on the back line of the defense.
“That is our best defense when we are pressuring 94 feet. Most teams don’t like to be pressured. We you have Alo (Lomax), Damion (Baugh) and Lester (Quinones) up there pressuring with so much activity, and guys like me, Moussa (Cissé) and DeAndre (Williams), we are going to block it. That gives them (the guards) confidence to go out there and cheat a little more.”
Hardaway does not think many teams play defense as well as the Tigers.
“There are more talented teams than us, but as far as defense … that is what we hang our hat on,” he said.
With the victory, the Tigers moved into the second slot in the AAC. Amid the post-game positivity, Lomax was asked what it would mean for the team to make the NCAA tournament.
“It would be a dream come true. If we get to the tournament, I might shed a couple of tears, because we have been in a drought for such a long time,” Lomax said. “I was a kid watching Memphis on television in a tournament. Now I am a kid from the city with the all-time greats.
“I just want to take advantage of this opportunity and bring a lot of smiles to the city. I know the city loves the Tigers. I want to do what it takes to make the city happy.”
- There were 42 fouls called in the game, with Cissé and Williams fouling out for the Tigers, who connected on 18 of 29 free throws.
- Next up for the Tigers will be the Cincinnati Bearcats. The game is set for the FedExForum on Thursday (Feb. 11) at 6 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN2.