Penny Hardaway bobble head dolls greeted University of Memphis fans – the first several thousands of them – as they entered the FedExForum to play the University of Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday.
And while not all of the 14,642 in attendance got one of the promotional items, there was plenty of happiness to go around as the Tigers beat back the Blazers 94 to 76.
Playing one of their best halves in Hardaway’s inaugural season, the Tigers shot 62 percent from the floor and were even hotter from three-point range, hitting on a 66.3 clip. Tyler Harris and Kyvon Davenport hit from deep to start the game, giving the Tigers a 6-0 lead they never relinquished.
The UofM’s second highest scorer for the game with 21 points, Davenport continued to step up his game since he was removed from the starting lineup during the Tigers’ trip to Orlando for the Advocare Tournament. He was the third leading scorer (13.1 points) coming into the game.
Harris led the Tigers with 24 points (four of 10 from three-point range) and had five assists. And while the Tigers were blazing in the first half, the second half had a different feel to it.
“We weren’t doing anything different in the second half,” said Harris. “The shots just were not falling for us”.
The Tigers pushed to their largest first half lead (31-19) with 8:17 left to play when Harris connected on a 3-pointer. The Blazers narrowed the gap and were only down 49-39 going into the halftime break.
Hardaway was asked what the coaching staff did to prompt such a productive first half.
“We just gave them confidence in going out there in playing free. We wanted to penetrate the paint and kick it out for the three. We were stressing on taking too many threes, but that is what teams have been giving us. We were saying take and make and that was the difference in our game today.”
Although not as hot shooting, the Tigers maintained control in the second half. Persistent throughout, the Blazers made one last run at the Tigers, cutting the deficit to four points (63-59) with 10:49 left.
Davenport hit a three-point basket to extend the lead on the very next play. He scored 13 of his 21 points in the second half. Afterwards, he talked about adjusting to how the referees call a game.
“I just stay focused,” he said. “I feel like I got a couple of bad calls, but I have to adjust to it. I have been in foul trouble lately and I have to stay out of it.”
Hardaway has been preaching that being a very good team starts with defense and taking care of the basketball. He wants the Tigers to force turnovers by taking charges.
Harris said, “In practice we have been doing a drill…in order to get off of the court you have to take three charges. This helps me a lot in games. I am quick enough to beat my man to the spot and I like the reaction from the team and the crowd.”
On Harris taking more charges, Hardaway said, “Tyler is being a sponge. Every day in practice, I am telling him to be one of the smallest players on the court, you have to be effective on defense. We know he is a weapon on offense, but he has to take charges, get steals and get deflections. He has to be a pest out there.
“I know that is something that he has never done before, but that shows you the type of player he is. He is willing to do what it takes to win.”
It proved to be the UofM’s first blowout win of the season.
“We had a total group effort,” Hardaway said. “We still have work to do, but we are getting better and better.”
The Tigers were second in the American Athletic Conference in scoring offense entering the game (78.2) and dead last in allowing points (78.9).
During the postgame interview, Hardaway hinted that regional rival with the Ole Miss Rebels is close to being added to the schedule for next season.
The Tigers have a week to prepare for Tennessee at the FedExForum. The top-ten ranked Vols knocked off top-ranked Gonzaga over the weekend.
PHOTO GALLERY (Terry Davis):