FORT WORTH, Texas — “Very hard game. … The first game of the tournament is a very hard game. You don’t know what to expect,” said University of Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway, whose Tigers controlled the University of Central Florida Golden Knights on Friday.
The 85-69 win propelled the Tigers (20-9) into the semifinals of the 2022 Air Force Reserve American Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Championship at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.
The No. 3 seed coming into the conference’s postseason tournament, Memphis earned a matchup with No. 2 seed SMU today (March 12). The game is set for 4 p.m. CT and can be viewed on ESPN2.
Memphis rocketed in front against UCF, leading 26-8 with 10:08 left in the first half. The Golden Knights pushed back, cutting the Tigers’ advantage to 10 points (41-31) the halftime break (41-31).
Energized starting the second half, UCF forced a couple of unforced turnovers and climbed within two points (44-42). The Tigers responded with an 8-0 run and the Golden Knights never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
“It shocked me how we got started. We were on fire,” said Hardaway. “Then they got on fire. At the end of the day, I told my guys that is what happens in these types of tournaments. You have to stay the course and stay together. They did and they brought the win home.”
A career-high by veteran guard Lester Quinones (22 points), along with 21 points and a career-high 20 rebounds by freshman center Jalen Duren was just too much for the Golden Knights.
“I am very happy to get the win and (to be) going on to the next game,” said Duren. “
Having everyone back and being able to build some bonds with the guys on the court has helped a lot. It has allowed us to become closer on and off of the court. You are happy to get the win and keep moving on.”
Quinones credited his teammates when accounting for his career-high in points, saying they were “finding me.”
“It was huge with ALO (guard Alex Lomax) having seven assists. He did a really good job of facilitating the game and being that veteran guard we need.”
Confidence-wise, Quinones said he feels as though he is “in a great space. The only thing I am focused on now is winning the game. It could be anybody’s night coming out and tonight was my night.”
Limiting turnovers and controlling the boards were keys to victory, said Hardaway.
“You have to be able to handle the ball and not turn it over. When we are winning and doing well the ball is in ALO’s hand and he is running the offense and the guys are benefiting from that. When we are wild and everyone touching the ball and trying to do too much, the other teams are getting easy baskets.
“For us to win, we have to control our tempo defensively and offensively. We have to share the basketball.”
As for Duren’s 21 points and 20 rebounds, Hardaway said, “He has said he was going to do that. That is just his greatness. He wants to do whatever it takes to win. I can tell when he is locked in.
“When it was not going well early he could have folded it up and not gone as hard, but he has gotten better every week. It just shows his greatness.”
DeAndre Williams was the emotional leader for the team, pairing that with 14 points and 6 rebounds. He was also on the receiving end of an alley-oop pass from Duren.
A win against SMU and Memphis is in the championship game. The teams have played each other twice this season, with the Mustang knocking off the Tigers both times.
Asked about facing SMU again, Quinones said, “We are just focused on going 1-0 in our next game.”
Why have the Mustangs given the Tigers trouble?
“They spread you and play smart,” said Williams. “They know how to play good basketball.”