The regular season is done for the American Athletic Conference, which lays claim to the nation’s No. 1-ranked Houston Cougars and a team of Memphis Tigers that almost delivered a historic program victory to a sold-out FedExForum crowd on Sunday.
The sounds of “almost” included a collective gasp at the end as Houston’s Jamal Shead connected on a tightly-contested jumper that gave the Cougars (29-2, 17-1 American Athletic Conference) a 67-65 win moments before the game-ending buzzer. Memphis, which was 0-10 when playing No. 1-ranked teams, almost got it done.
It was only the second time a No. 1 team has played the Tigers in Memphis. The other encounter pitted Memphis against the Arkansas Razorbacks in the old Pyramid arena in 1993.
The Tigers (23-8, 13-5) now head to Fort Worth, Texas as the No. 2-seed in the AAC Tournament, with a matchup on Friday (March 10) against the survivor of the UCF-SMU tussle.
“There is not much difference between us and Houston,” Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway said after the game that lived up to the hype of the conference’s top two teams going head-to-head. “The culture that they have set has gotten more respect than what we have gotten.”
The Tigers defeated the Cougars twice last season and lost in the conference championship game last season. Houston won this season’s first matchup, securing an eight-point win as Memphis played without its injured main man, point guard Kendric Davis.
Davis was the scoring force the Tigers needed him to be in pursuit of upsetting Houston in front of a fanbase that did its part. He had a game-high 26 points, along with an assist and a steal. A tough Houston defense forced him into five turnovers.
The game’s backdrop also included Davis being a Houston native.
“I just took this game as any other game,” he said. “I’m hurt because I am from Houston. I don’t really look at them like that (as the No. 1-ranked team.)”
Hardaway looked inward after the near-win over the Cougars.
“I put this on me. We had a bad game plan in the first half,” he said. “We got back on track in the second half. We will try to do better the next time. We will go into the AAC tournament renewed and try to compete.”
Tracking the Cougars early, the Tigers forged a 6-6 tie. Hot from three-point range, Houston opened double-digit leads on multiple occasions and led 26-15 with 8:37 left in the first half.
The Tigers pounced back to trail by four points with three minutes to go in the first half. The Cougars responded took a nine-point lead (41-32) into the halftime break.
Houston connected on seven shots from three-point territory in the first half as Memphis struggled from deep. The Tigers stayed in the game with free throws, making 16 of 18.
Memphis shook Houston in the second half, outscoring the Cougars 33-26. A Davis three-pointer with 13:33 to play gave the Tigers the lead (48-47) as Memphis fans raised the roof of the FedExForum.
The Tigers led by five points (61-56) with 3:49 left in the game.
“We were better in the pick and roll,” Hardaway said about Memphis’ second-half improvement.
A 7-2 run by Houston included a Davis three-pointer that knotted the score at 63 before the Cougars pushed ahead 65-63 with 1:19 left in the game.
The drama of the last minute had the markings of March Madness. The Tigers tied the game with eight seconds to play when Davis penetrated for a layup.
Then the “almost” entered.
The Cougars got the ball into the hands of Snead who maneuvered for the game-winning jumper just before time expired.
“We got close to Snead, but he was still able to finish at the end,” said Hardaway.
“The crowd was phenomenal. They gave us the edge, but we did not come out and perform. They (Houston) got 41 points in the first half. That is unacceptable.”
It was Senior Day and also featured a salute to the ’73 team that made it to the Final Four Championship. Earlier this season, the University of Memphis honored Larry Finch, the biggest star on that team, and coupled the occasion with the retiring of the late Lorenzen Wright’s jersey.
“To lose both of these games is gut wrenching,” said Hardaway, “because you know what they mean to this program.”
It also was the last game to be played in Memphis as a unit by Malcolm Dandridge, Alex Lomax, Jayden Hardway, Chandler Lawson and Johnathan Lawson – the nucleus of the East High School State champions.
“We were just coming out here (to) handle our business,” said Dandridge.
“We know the season is far from over. We are looking forward.”