Never mind that the University of New Orleans Privateers are winless (0-3). The University of Memphis Tigers beat them Tuesday night at the FedExForum and for a team learning to play – and win – together that’s a positive to bank on.
In the second home game of the season, the Tigers (2-1) defeated the Privateers 63-52. They were powered by the explosive play of senior forward Jimario Rivers and a career-high 18 points. His previous high was 16 against Connecticut last January.
“I just wanted to bring as much energy as I could to help my team,” Rivers said. “If that meant getting on the floor for loose balls or knocking down some shots, that is what I was willing to do. I was just in the right spots and my teammates did a good job of getting me the ball.”
The game was the second consecutive in which one of the two returnees from last year’s team achieved a career high in points. Last week, Jeremiah Martin scored 26 points in the win over Little Rock. Rivers got off to a fast start, scoring 8 of the team’s first 11 points in slightly more than the first four minutes of the game.
“He set the tone early with his aggressiveness,” head coach Tubby Smith said. “Jimario is our best defender. He is size for size and pound for pound our best rebounder. This year he is playing on the perimeter, last year he played on the inside. He is making that adjustment. He is recognizing what he can do. He is playing to his strengths.”
The Tigers never trailed in the game and had a comfortable 32-16 halftime lead. However, they did not start the second half with a sense of urgency. New Orleans cut the Tigers’ lead down to 8 points with 11:02 left in the game.
Martin and Malik Rhodes provided the good guard play needed to get the Tigers over the hump.
“We did what we had to do to get the win,” Smith said. “I give them credit, they attacked us. They were very aggressive in the second half. We did some things in our routine to get us out to a good start. Most people have a tough time with prosperity. I tried to be positive at halftime, but I knew we weren’t playing well at halftime.“
Asked what it will take to improve the play of the freshmen on the team, Martin said, “I think the guys are playing well. Everybody is not going to play great every game. It is all about being consistent. They are still learning; they are freshmen.”
Martin, who racked up 15 points and three steals, said the Tigers need to be poised with the basketball.
“They sped us up a little bit and we thought we just had to go right back at them. If we had been more poised and getting in our spots, we would be better.”
Rhodes made a big three at a pivotal point to give the Tigers some cushion.
“I know my team has confidence in me,” he said. “My teammates have shown that they want me to have the ball in my hands and make the right plays.”
Rivers said the Tigers are “in the building process” relative to team chemistry. “We hang out every day to try to build a brotherhood so on the court we can have that chemistry and unity with one another.”
From Rhodes’ vantage point, the Tigers already have great team chemistry. “We play with each other all the time. We all have been here since this summer. Guys are just not making the shots right now, but I feel the chemistry is here.”
NEXT: The Tigers host Northern Kentucky (4-1) at 5 p.m. on Saturday.