With a nod to skill, talent, coaching, fan support and other elements that go into winning basketball games, a player having the right mindset – especially in big-time moments – is pivotal to reaching that desired outcome.
Memphis point guard Tyler Harris was the embodiment of that on Sunday, coming off of the bench and delivering a 20-point performance they helped the Tigers turn back the Cincinnati Bearcats 87-80 before a fully-engaged fanbase at FedExForum.
With the Tigers (9-5 overall, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) holding on to an 83-80 lead late in the game, a Harris steal and free throws sealed the game. He made four free throws and scored nine of his 20 points, including a dagger-like three-pointer, within a key 90-second span.
“It felt great closing this out,” said Harris, the Memphis native who returned to the UofM this season after transferring to Iowa State following two years with the Tigers. “We have to play every day like everyone is our rival. We have to get in grind mode.”
Cincinnati (11-5, 1-2) long has been in the rival category for Memphis, with that rivalry spanning multiple conferences. Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway felt the vibes before tipoff.
“I was walking down the hallway entering the court and I heard the energy,” said Hardaway. “It was the loudest I heard walking down that hallway before a game. The Memphis and Cincinnati rivalry is still strong.”
As for Harris, one of his former East High School players, Hardaway said, “Tyler is a weapon. He can put daggers in people. He is a big shot taker and maker. If there is any shot needed on my team, he is going to be the one to take it. That is who he is.”
And then there was the Harris steal.
“That is the biggest play of the game to me, getting that steal,” said Hardaway, “besides that big three he hit.”
For the Tigers, the winning performance served as somewhat of a counter to a rocky December.
“The team in December didn’t have the chemistry we have now,” Harris said. “I wouldn’t say we would have lost it (the Cincinnati game) then. Now, we are locked in … in the trenches locked together.”
With victory within their grasp and the Tigers needing to seal it, Harris said, “I was very confident in the game at that time. The coaches and teammates believed in me. It was a great moment – the three, the floater and the free throws. My teammates are going to pat me on the back whether it is a hit or miss.”
The first half was a balanced affair on multiple fronts – Memphis shot 43 percent from the floor, Cincinnati shot 42; each team had five turnovers and each made six three-pointers, with the Tigers taking a 40-34 lead into halftime.
The Bearcats, not known as an exceptional three-point-shooting team, came out on fire from beyond the arc after the break, connecting on 10 three-pointers in the second half. They were led by Jeremiah Davenport (21 points), who connected on 7 of 10 from deep. David DeJulius and Mika Adams-Woods each had 15 points.
The Bearcats’ biggest lead in the second half was three points and the largest for the Tigers was seven.
The Tigers stayed in the game by protecting the basketball and making their free throws. They were 16 of 19 on free throws and only had 11 turnovers in the game.
Lester Quinones played 32 minutes and finished with 18 points for the Tigers. Freshman guard Emoni Bates had perhaps his best all-around game of the season, with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and only 1 turnover.
Freshman forward Josh Minott finished with 14 points, just one shy of his career-high of 15 points, and 10 rebounds. Two of his baskets were crowd-pleasing dunks, one on a pass from Harris and another on an alley-oop from Bates.
The Tigers, who have been hampered by injuries, were boosted by the return of Bates, freshman center Jalen Duren (7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks), Landers Nolley II (7 points, 5 rebounds, assists) and Jayden Hardaway (6 points, 1 rebound). Earl Timberlake (1 assist, 2 rebounds) left the game with a possible concussion and Malcolm Dandridge (3 points, 3 rebounds) was not available late in the game. Assistant coach Rasheed Wallace is in health and safety protocols.
“It was a proud win for me as a coach,” said Hardaway. “We had more bodies go down. Thank God Emoni played today. It seems like we keep getting hit with punch after punch and the guys keep responding.”
The Tigers stood together when they probably would have crumbled earlier in the season, said Hardaway. “They were never out of the game.”
Memphis next hits the road for two games: first will be a tough test against UCF in Orlando on Wednesday (Jan. 12) followed by a matchup against East Carolina on Saturday (Jan. 15).
“We have to stay poised on the road,” said Harris. “My job is to go out there and make it easier for these guys. I have to talk to them before things happen and keep them prepared for everything. They know now going on the road everything is way harder. They are going to be locked, but I am there to help them.”
With 14,302 fans in attendance, the Tigers wore their blue Memphis State uniforms in the blue out at FedExForum. It was quite a setting for Harris’ hometown heroics.
“You know what comes along with staying home,” said Hardaway. “You have to perform. It doesn’t mean scoring all the time. It’s just about winning. As a city, we love winners. We want to win and Tyler (Harris) understands that. He is never short on competing.”