Tigers shock No. 23 Houston

Third victory in a row for a team that some detractors thought would be faltering at this point in the season.

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For the University of Memphis Tigers, Tuesday night’s surprise win of the No. 23 ranked Houston Cougars was the first victory over a consensus-ranked opponent in the era of head coach Tubby Smith.

With an announced crowd of 6,536 at the FedExForum, the Tigers took down the Cougars, who had earned the No. 23 choice in the rankings by USA Today and the Associated Press. The Tigers upset the Cougars 91-85.

The last time the Tigers defeated a team ranked in both polls was in 2013 when the UofM  defeated Louisville.

The win was bittersweet for the Tigers. Starting guard Jeremiah Martin left the game after only play 14 minutes in the first half. He did not return until the second half with a walking boot on his left foot. Martin suffered an ankle injury and more tests will be conducted to determine the severity.

The rest of the Tigers picked up the slack in the absence of Martin. Jimario Rivers and Raynere Thornton each scored career highs in points (21) in dramatic fashion. Thornton connected on four of five three-point attempts and made all nine free throw attempts.

Rivers made big baskets whenever there was a need for an answer by the Tigers. He made eight of 9 free throws and was constantly attacking the front of the rim to convert layups. He also made one of his three-point basket attempts. Rivers led the team in rebounds with nine.

The Tigers entered the game on a two-game winning streak, with both wins on the road. The Cougars were riding a five-game winning streak and were only one-half game out of first place in the American Athletic Conference.

The Tigers came out with energy that they have sometimes lacked to start games, taking   a 10-5. The Cougars soon began to scorch the Tigers’ zone defense, going on a 13-0 run to take a 18-10 lead with 12:54 left in the first half.

The Cougars pushed their lead to the largest of the half at 43-30 with 1:13 left. Thanks to good defensive efforts by the Tigers, two free throws by Rivers and a three-point basket by Kyvon Davenport. the Tigers cut the lead to 43-35 to end the first half. Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson was assessed a technical foul as both teams were heading to the locker rooms.

At the start of the second half, Rivers would connect on both technical free throws to make it 43-37 to start the second half. Less than a minute into the second half Memphis head coach Tubby Smith was assessed a technical foul for complaining about a foul that was called on Davenport. After an official review Houston’s Breaon Brady was assessed a flagrant one foul for making contact to the head area of Davenport. Both teams were awarded two technical free throws.

The next several minutes was a back-and-forth tussle. The Tigers tied the game at 62 with 10:52 left on a free throw by Thornton and took the lead 63-62 on his second free throw.

The Tigers never relinquished that lead. Thronton scored 8 of the next 11 points for the Tigers. He was fouled on a three-point shot attempt and made all three free throws. Malik Rhodes even got in on the action. He scored on a deep three-point attempt as the shot clock was expiring. Rhodes played 14 minutes, his most playing time since returning to the team from an earlier suspension.

Unlike some prior games, the Tigers did not fade and even got stronger. Rob Gray Jr for the Cougars cut the Tigers’ lead down to 85-81 with a minute left to play. The Tigers continued to make their free throws and kept Houston at bay. Gray finished  with a game high 30 points, including 5 of 8 from three-point range. Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks each finished with 15 points.

Coach Smith had to change his shirt for the post-game press conference. As he entered the locker room and was about to start dancing, some of his team members threw water on him in a celebratory fashion. He did not complete the dance because of the wet floor.

Next up the Tigers

The Tigers (17-11, 8-7) will travel to face the struggling Connecticut Huskies (13-15-, 6-9). on Sunday. The game will be played at 3 p.m. CDT and can be seen on ESPN.

Post-game quotes

On getting the getting a signature win, Rivers said, “It feels good to beat a top 25 team. Protecting the home court is what we were focused on. We wanted to play hard no matter what the outcome of the game was and that is what I did tonight.”

On what it meant to win the game without Martin, Rivers said, “Jeremiah is a good player, but when he went down the team just fought for one another. With him out we tried to get as many defensive stops as we could.”

On getting extended minutes, Malik Rhodes said, “It feels good. It just felt good to be out there with my teammates and to enjoy the atmosphere. It is a good feeling.”

On the upcoming schedule of opponents below the Tigers in the standings, Rivers said, “We are not taking any of our opponents lightly. They may be under us in the ranking, but they can still put the ball in the basket. We are going to take it one game at a time.”

Coach Smith: “It was a great win for us. They raised their level of play. They raised their intensity, especially after Jeremiah went down. We had outstanding effort throughout the lineup. Guys played their best effort. This is the most complete game we have had all year long. We have been playing better.”

On getting a technical, Smith said, “I think I said ‘BS,’ a lot of people say a lot worst. I apologize for losing my cool. I really don’t do that. It can cost you. I think our guys were a little bit energized.”

On how the win might affect the rest of the season, Smith said, “I hope it inspires them to listen. They did a good job of following the game plan. That is the toughest thing for them to do … focus for an extended period of time. You have to play with emotion without being emotional. Act like you have been here before. Hopefully they can learn from this.”