FORT WORTH, Texas – It’s post-season time and Memphis Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway, who often has said he knows “how hard it is to win a basketball game” any time, is even more sure “how much harder it is to win in March.”
With that point of view, Hardaway declared, “I am proud of my guys” after the No. 2-seeded Tigers (24-8) held off No. 7 UCF 81-76 in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Tournament quarterfinals in Fort Worth, Texas on Friday night.
“UCF’s record (18-14) don’t indicate how good they are,” said Hardaway.
Memphis advanced to the semifinals (Saturday, March 11), where they will seek to beat third-seeded Tulane, which beat the Tigers twice in the regular season. Tipoff is set for 4 p.m. The winner plays for the AAC tournament title and its automatic NCAA Tournament invitation on Sunday afternoon.
Memphis’ senior tandem of stars, Kendric Davis (31 points, 7 assists, 1 rebound) and DeAndre Williams (35 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists) played up to their first-team All American Conference selections. The Tigers led by 10 (40-30) at the half as Williams (18 points) and Davis (12 points) paved the way. Memphis scored 41 points in the second half, with Davis and Williams accounting for all but three points.
“They refused to lose and refused to let Central Florida win,” Hardaway said of Davis and Williams. “These guys are killers. They are built for moments like these. They are closers and I am proud of them. They understand the magnitude of what this is.
“KD (Davis) has never made the NCAA tournament. He is showing his hunger (and) that he is not ready to go home. You lose that first game … it is not good for him or DeAndre’s resume.”
Davis said he tried to “play with a chip on my shoulder. He (Hardaway) set the tempo and called us into his office and said this is personal. In my mindset I remember what (UCF’s) C.J. Kelly said, ‘We had to show Memphis who is in town.’ I took that personal. I didn’t want to lose.”
Williams said, “We want to continue to play like this all tournament. … We had to play with that mindset that we didn’t want to lose.”
The Knights were led by Kelly with 28 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists. Darius Johnson had 15 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists. Also in double figures were Ithiel Horton (10 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) and Michael Durr (10 points, 8 rebounds).
Memphis’ win in the opening round of the tournament reflected, said Williams, what he and Davis (a transfer from SMU) “knew at the beginning of the season” – that they could play together. And, he said, “… We trust coach’s leadership. We are going to get it done no matter how we do it.”
In light of the dominance by Davis and Williams, Hardaway spoke to the absence of jealousy on the team.
“That is the reason we are where we are right now,” he said. “We put the team together so we would not have any jealousy, or getting mad because they (others) weren’t getting their shots. It has worked out beautiful.
“That is why this is my best team. No one is worried about what they are doing. We have had that before and it is not fun to be there.”
Davis, who came to the Tigers as the AAC’s reigning Player of the Year, was thought by many to be the favorite to repeat. Houston’s Marcus Sasser netted that award.
“He (Davis) deserved it,” said Hardaway. “I am riding with my guy all the time. He works hard and puts us in a position to win.”
Hardaway had a message for his Tigers going forward.
“We don’t know if we are going to win, but we know we have to battle,” he said. “We played an efficient game tonight. We have to repeat it again tomorrow; no matter who we face. We have to worry about us. There are some things on this stat sheet that we have to shore up for us to continue to win and cut the nets down on Sunday.”