After an eight-day break, the University of Memphis Tigers took the court Tuesday at FedExForum with a new offense against the University of South Florida Bulls.
While the offense did produce a better offensive flow in the first half, it was the defense that powered the Tigers (6-4, 2-1) to a 58-57 come-from-behind victory. That defensive performance was keyed by Alex Lomax.
The Tigers had 14 steals – DeAndre Williams with 5, Lomax with 3. They forced 11 turnovers and converted them into 25 points.
Lomax’s stat line for 20 minutes of play detailed two rebounds, three assists, five points and his three steals. There is, however, no official stat for the will to win that he showed.
“I need Alex to play like that,” head coach Penny Hardaway said. “That is the Alex I am used to seeing. That is the way he used to will our teams to wins. With his energy, it was contagious.”
Proud of the team, Hardaway took note that, “In the first half we had an eight-point lead with a chance to push them out, but we could not get the group to push the lead out. The second half was a dog fight.”
Lomax was back on the floor as a key contributor after sitting out Memphis’ 56-49 loss in its previous game against Tulsa.
“My emotions are all over the place in 2020 in general. I felt I let me teammates down. No matter how bad my thumb was hurting, I felt I could have contributed (against Tulsa),” Lomax said. “Today. I let it be known that I will not let you down. I can always bring my effort and my heart. I am going to try to do this every game.”
Social media critics had set sights on Lomax.
“I know for a fact the true Memphis Tigers fans have not turned against me. I feel that the people that are turning against me are the people that I used to beat by 30 or 40 points every day in high school. It is their nephews, aunts and uncles that are still upset about that,” said Lomax, who starred at East High School, which was coached by Hardaway at the time.
“I need this adversity. I love it. I have been through everything. They can’t tear me down. The true fans have my back and that is who I do it for.”
The Tigers faced the Bulls (5-4, 1-2) in need of getting on track, especially on offense, following a string of not-so-stellar performances. Hardaway dubbed the new offense Lion, linking it to the reputation of the lion as the king of the jungle.
Memphis shot 49 percent from the floor in the first half and began to make layups and short shots the team had been missing most of the season. The Tigers went scoreless for five-plus minutes before taking the lead on a 4-0 run to end the half up 25-23.
After the halftime break, the Bulls went on an 21-9 run, taking a 46-34 lead with 10:36 left in the game. The Tigers looked lifeless and uninspired.
That is when Lomax created a steal, converted it into a basket and was fouled en route to a three-point play and a 14-2 Memphis run that had the game tied 48 with 5:22 left.
Lester Quinones scored six of the last 10 points for the Tigers, connecting on two three-pointers that put Memphis ahead for good. A shot clock violation with 18 seconds left gave South Florida a chance to steal a win. With the game on the line, the defense of D.J. Jeffries, Lomax and the rest of the Tigers forced a bad shot. A blocked shot by Jeffries sent the ball out of bounds as the game clock expired.
Quinones led the Tigers in scoring with 13 points. Williams had 12 points and Landers Nolley II played another solid game adding 10 points. Memphis did shoot better for the game, hitting the 45-percent mark.
South Florida was led by Caleb Murphy with 20 points and Justin Brown had 10 points, including three made three-pointers.
On shortening the Tigers’ rotation, Hardaway said, “You want everybody to go out there. We feel we have 10 starters. This culture of playing in these empty gyms is really tough no matter who you are playing. This team has not been able to put it together in stretches.”
The Tigers will be in Philadelphia on Saturday (Jan. 2) to face the Temple Owls. The game is set for 11 a.m.
The team will stay on the road, moving on to Orlando to face the University of Central Florida on Tuesday (January 5) at 8 p.m. Both games will be shown on ESPNU.