All of this happened: the University of Memphis Tigers men’s basketball team won its season opener, did so with an acting head coach and learned some things in the process.
The Tigers rolled past Jackson State University’s Tigers (94-77) at FedExForum and now turn their sights to the University of Missouri’s Tigers, who will host the matchup to be seen on the SEC Network on Friday (Nov. 10) night at 8 p.m.
Memphis assistant coach Rick Stansbury, former head coach at Mississippi State University, filled in for head coach Penny Hardaway, who served the first of a NCAA-imposed, three-game suspension.
“I am proud of how our guys withstood those first five minutes,” said Stansbury. “For the first five minutes, I think we were playing for the other team. We had eight turnovers. I think Young (Jayhlon) came off the bench and gave us some defensive energy.”
Stansbury credited Hardaway and the assisted coaches for getting the team ready.
The first half was a mixed bag for the Tigers, who led 47-36 at the break. Jaykwon Walton put an early stamp on his role with the team. He scored 17 points in the half, going 6 for 6 from the field and hitting all three of his shots from three-point range.
However, the room for improvement was evident. The Tigers had 10 first-half turnovers. David Jones had 5 and Walton had 3. And while the Tigers shot well from the field (50 percent), they missed on several easy baskets.
The big turnaround in the first half occurred as JSU led 22-16 with 12:20 to go. Memphis erupted with a 10-0 run in 66 seconds.
“I think we got into their lungs a little bit. I think their guards got a little tired,” said Stansbury. “When you are tired, you are apt to make more mistakes. Mills (Caleb) had a couple of steals and got us going. It doesn’t take long to change a flow of a game. This team has some spurtability.”
Mills, reflecting on his role during the run, said, “When you go in you have to produce in some way. They were on a roll offensively. I took on a challenge to stop that. I got a couple of steals and pushed the tempo in transition.”
In the second half, Memphis played under control better, only committing 4 turnovers through the first 12 minutes (and six total).
JSU finished the game with four players in double-figures scoring – Ken Evans had 18 points, Chase Adams 16 points, Coltie Young 13 points and Keijua Johnson had 10 points. JSU shot 43 percent from the field and committed 23 turnovers.
Walton led the Tigers with 19 points, adding 5 rebounds. Jones had 15 points and zero turnovers in the second half. Jaylen Brown had 11 points and 5 rebounds, Malcolm Dandridge and Mills had 10 points each, with Mills grabbing 7 rebounds as well.
Memphis first-game production was a noticeable improvement over performances in exhibition games against Lane College (Jackson) and cross-town opponent LeMoyne-Owen College.
“It is the first game,” said Walton. “I was trying to come out with more intensity.”
Mills added, “I just want to play basketball. I try to go hard every time I play.”
On his hot start, Walton said, “I love playing for Memphis. I love the city of Memphis. I love everything about it. I am ready to for the rest of the season.”
Although Memphis clearly can play better, the Tigers did score 94 points.
“The best teams don’t play better until the end of the season,” said Mills. “We have a lot of guys. We are not worried about who gets off.”
(Memphis’ next game at FedExForum will be Nov. 17, when the Tigers host Alabama State at 7 p.m. Alabama State is coached by former Tiger Tony Madlock, who played alongside Hardaway at what was then Memphis State.)