With execution proving to be the charm, University of Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway and the Tigers got past an SMU team that had beaten them twice this season. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)
Terry Davis

FORT WORTH, Texas – Penny Hardaway’s University of Memphis Tigers were down 55-51 to SMU’s Mustangs when a media timeout stopped play at the 6:59 mark down the stretch.

With a ticket on the line to the next day’s finals of the 2022 Air Force Reserve American Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Championship here at Dickies Arena, it was time to be locked in on what to do offensively and defensively to win the game.

The Tigers got the job done 70-63, riding that seven-point victory into the conference tournament championship tilt against the Houston Cougars on Sunday afternoon.

Hardaway shared his mindset about what the Tigers (21-9) needed to do to dig in and dig out of the four-point deficit coming out of the media break.

“For us, we just kept the ball in the same players’ hand and they capitalized,” said Hardaway. “They (the Tigers) missed a lot of small shots, little bunnies around the rim; missed a lot of shots.

“It was winning time and they made baskets in the time that we needed them to make them. They had missed them the entire time, and then finally started making them at the end. We ran the same plays, they just capitalized on them.”

Starting point guard Alex Lomax withstood some troublesome turnovers, turning in a 39-minute performance that reflected 12 points, four rebounds, four steals and three assists. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

With execution proving to be the charm, the Tigers got past an SMU team that had beaten them twice this season. The Mustangs (23-8) came in knowing that their chances of making the NCAA Tournament were on the bubble. Trailing much of the game, SMU had worked its way ahead but could not outlast the Tigers in a game noted for its physicality on the ESPN2 telecast.

The Tigers’ travails this season form the backdrop for appreciating that the AAC tournament title – and its automatic NCAA Tournament bid – are within their grasp, with an at-large tournament bid already secured.

Resting in the Top 10 early, they fell into a free fall punctuated by injuries and COVID-19 related absences. A pivot point followed Hardaway’s expletive-accented postgame comments after a 70-62 loss and his subsequent apology via social media.

With the Tigers’ laboring with a 9-8 overall record (3-4 AAC) at that juncture, homegrown starting point guard Alex Lomax was asked about the road ahead.

Alex Lomax with a bit of postgame jubilation after the Tigers beat SMU to advance to the AAC tournament title game. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

“We have three seasons – the non-conference, the conference and the postseason,” said the senior Lomax. “I know it is a long season to go. Anything is possible. We have the team to make something happen. We preach to the young guys to stay positive and stay in the gym.”

The “something” has indeed happened.

“I feel great,” Hardaway said after the Tigers avenged the losses to SMU and as he acknowledged the struggle aspects of the season.

“But now it just feels great because we’re playing … Memphis basketball. Our defense is traveling and any time we have that, I’m great. But I’m feeling really good behind this.

“I’m going to enjoy this win tonight, but we know we have a tough Houston team. Being in the championship, yeah, I feel great.”

Less than three minutes had elapsed in the game when Jalen Duren, Memphis’ star freshmen center, was forced to the bench with his second foul. Lomax gave the Tigers their first lead (8-7) with a floater inside the paint 12:52 left in the first half.

With Duren in foul trouble, the Tigers sought to weather the storm and they did. After getting the lead they pushed it to as many as 9 points (22-13) with 7:43 left in the half.

Flanked by Jayden Hardaway and Earl Timberlake (right), Memphis Center Jalen Duren made the most of the considerable he spent on the bench with foul trouble and an injury. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

Mounting a charge, SMU cut the Tigers’ lead to two points (26-24) at the 4:05 mark. The Tigers steadied themselves and led 32-26 at halftime. Lomax and fellow homegrown guard Tyler Harris each had 8 points in the first half, with Lomax also coming through with two spectacular blocks.

Tyler Harris looks for a passing option. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

A suspense-filled second half unfolded for the Tigers as multiple players went down with injuries and, ultimately, returned to the game. Couple that with foul trouble.

Duren, unanimously selected the 2021-22 American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year and a member of the AAC All-Conference First Team, only played three minutes in the first half. He had played only four minutes in the second half before having to leave following blocking a shot and landing on his hand.

Harris left the game and had to be helped to the bench after falling on his hip.

Lester Quinones, who was scoreless in the first half, had the main task of trying to keep the AAC Conference Player of Year, Kendric Davis (12 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists) in check. Quinones grabbed 8 rebounds in the first half, hitting his first basket three minutes into the second half.

Memphis’ foul woes continued in the second half. DeAndre Williams (7 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists) fouled out with 10 minutes left. Duren (9 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocks) made his return after Williams exited the game. Malcolm Dandridge (2 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists) was saddled with fouls as well.

Jalen Duren acknowledges the fan support as he exits the court following the Tigers battle with SMU in the semi-final game of the AAC tournament. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

SMU grabbed its first lead (45-44) of the second half on two free throws with 11:44 left in the game. Back-to-back turnovers by the Tigers led to the Mustangs’ 55-51 lead before the media timeout.

Two free throws by Lomax (12 points, four rebounds, four steals and three assists in 39 minutes) with 6:21 left tied the game at 55 and the Tigers never trailed again. Memphis made their free throws and the defense did not allow the Mustangs to sustain any type of run.

Earl Timberlake played well off the bench for the Tigers, with 9 points and 5 rebounds in 18 minutes.

“I had been looking at him (Timberlake) the entire first half and nodded to him and told him I was going to put him in,” said Hardaway. “He got in and got a tip-in. Right before the end of the half, he made a heck of a block that could have changed momentum for them. …

“Josh (Minott) got beat off the dribble and he (Timberlake) went in and blocked it before the end of the half to take us into the half with momentum.”

Said Timberlake: “Coach preaches, be ready for your moment. And I was ready, you know. I got to play today (laughter).”

SMU was led by Marcus Weathers’ 16 points and six rebounds, with his brother Michael Weathers finishing with 12 points, four rebounds.

Landers Nolley II, who had a tough time scoring in the first half, contributed 10 points after the break. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

For Memphis, Quinones scored all 10 of his points in the second half. Landers Nolley II, who managed only two points in the first half, scored 10 after the break. During his postgame media appearance Landers talked about contributing down the stretch.

“For me it felt good because Coach (Hardaway) kept his trust in me. The players, they all kept finding me, and I just tried to find a way to come through for them.”

Next up for the Tigers is a third test against Houston, which has been ranked throughout the season. To win its first AAC Tournament title, Memphis must beat a Cougars team they twice have defeated this season by double-digits.

GALLERY:

Tigers run away from UCF to set up a semifinal showdown with SMU