When it came time to run down the Bulls of South Florida, the pivot point was defense as the University of Memphis began American Athletic Conference play with a 93-86 win that tested whether the Tigers had a championship-intensity gear.
With 7:10 left in the game and the FedExForum crowd edgy, former Memphis Tiger Tyler Harris sank two free throws that lifted the Bulls to a 10-point lead (76-66). Over the next five minutes, the Tigers (11-3, 1-0) rolled on a 16-5 run that took them to a one-point (82-81) lead. Kendric Davis played paceman with 10 of the 16 points.
“Championship intensity when it looked like you were going to lose,” said Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway. “Early in the game, you know you can come back from that. But late in the game can you stay calm enough under the pressure?
“I told them the best players stay firm and calm in chaos. We had to do some things. We had to turn the defense up. Stop fouling Tyler and take those guys out of the game.”
Harris received a warm ovation from the crowd as he was introduced as a starter and when he fouled out with seconds left in the game. He made 10 of 11 free throws during a 17-point, five-rebound outing that included a three-pointer from the mid-court logo.
“I love that,” Harris said about the embrace of the fans. “I got a degree from Memphis. I am from Memphis. I am all Memphis. They know I wanted to be here with them. It felt great for sure.”
A product of Cordova High School, Harris originally signed with the Tigers, later transferred to Iowa State, then back to Memphis for a year before signing on with South Florida (7-7) for his final season.
“I had a lot of respect for this team,” Hardaway said. “I saw them play earlier this season. They have lost seven games, but they have been in every game. Once they get rolling, they are pretty good. This is something we really needed.”
Most bracketologists project the Tigers as a sixth or seven seed in the NCAA tournament, if they don’t suffer any bad losses heading into March. The Bulls routinely give the Tigers a tough game. Tuesday was more of the same.
Memphis controlled most of the first half but the Bulls used the long ball to stay close. South Florida connected on five three-pointers and the game was tied 46-46 at the halftime break.
The Bulls took their first lead of the game (49-48) with 18:33 left on a three-pointer by Ryan Conwell. They got it to as much as 10 points before the Tigers forced turnovers, made shots and grabbed key rebounds to secure the win. All the starters had double-digit points. Davis led the way with 24 points and 9 assists.
“He is a closer. He has been doing this his entire career,” Hardaway said of Davis. “I have been holding him back a little to make plays. Once it gets to be winning time, you have to let him go.”
Davis provided details about his improved defensive play.
“Coach pushes me. When you have a guard like Alo (Alex Lomax), for me he is one of the best defensive guards in the country. When you see a guard like that, I can’t let him down. Penny be on me every day at practice. I like it because it challenges me.”
DeAndre Williams and Lomax each scored 16 points. Elijah Macadden had 10 points and 6 rebounds. Chandler Lawson finished with 11 points and 5 rebounds in only 18 minutes.
“When we are sharing the basketball, we are one of the best teams in the country,” Hardaway said. “Our goal is 20 assists. Today we had 22 assists.”
As the game wound down, Lomax was hyping the crowd.
“I was out of my body,” he said. “Our crowd is the sixth man. I felt that energy and I wanted more. They came with the energy. We came with more.”
Next up for the Tigers will be a tough road game in New Orleans against Tulane. Tipoff is set for 4 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN.