After playing four straight games in Florida – and winning just one – The Mempis Tigers were eager for some “home cooking” as they welcomed the South Dakota State Jackrabbits to FedExForum Tuesday night.
Much like the Tigers, SDSU likes to play fast. But the Tigers were able to outrun their opponents and opened a month-long homestand with an 88-80 victory over the Jackrabbits in front of nearly 14,000 Tiger fans.
“This was a huge win for us,” said Tigers Head Coach Penny Hardaway. “You have to get that first one after coming home from off of the road. (SDSU has) three really good players, the three-headed monster of Mike Daum, David Jenkins and Skyler Flatten. They showed up as advertised. I am proud of the guys for hanging in there. We came out with a great team victory.”
SDSU has been to five of the last seven NCAA tournaments, including their current streak of three straight tournament appearances. They’re expecting Daum to lead them back again. Daum, who declined the NBA Draft so he could play his senior season, is averaging 23.5 points and 10.5 boards for the Rabbits.
SDSU wants to run; so do the Tigers. But Memphis has not thrived at their up-tempo pace so far this season. Hardaway believes his team’s tough early schedule is beginning to pays dividends.
“Absolutely,” Hardaway answered, when asked if his team is improving. “We are starting to take charges. We are playing weak side help better now. The teams we have played have got us pointed in in the right directions, because of the experiences that we have been through.”
The Jackrabbits got off to an early 10-5 against Memphis, but the Tigers rallied to take a 19-13 lead about midway through the first half. Tiger guard Jeremiah Martin’s warmed up to help close the gap and take the lead.
“We are learning each other and more importantly we are learning the game,” Martin said. “I am trying to teach the younger guys time management. I am learning things and they are as well.”
The Tigers built their largest first-half lead when freshman Tyler Harris drained a three-pointer to give Memphis a 38-27 lead with two minutes left in the first half. The Tigers took a 40-32 lead into halftime. Harris and Martin led Memphis with 12 points and 10 points respectively.
After the Texas Tech loss, Martin pledged to elevate his play, and he did just that in the second half against SDSU. Martin scored 12 second-half points to tie Harris with a team-high 22 points. Isaiah Maurice played only 9 minutes in the last game had 10 points in 20 minutes of action.
The second half was a back-and-forth affair with the Jackrabbits constantly putting the pressure on the Tigers. Each time the Tigers pulled away, SDSU made a run to keep the game interesting. Tiger guard Alex Lomax gave the Tigers a 14-point second half lead with a layup midway through the second half, and other than a mini 8-1 run, SDSU never seriously threatened after that.
“We were able to keep the right mindset between the games and sticking to the game plan,” Lomax said. “The biggest difference was players were making shots. We run the same offense. Today we just moved the ball from side to side a little more. We just got some good looks.”
The Tigers successfully contained Daum, who had 18 points in 32 minutes, but also commiteed four turnovers.
“We had to go at him right away,” Hardaway said of Daum. “To be able to take care of him and not let him get his average, we had to get him out of the game. We took charges on him, we planned to take charges on him and we were going at him on the post. We continued to put the pressure on him.”
Overall, the Tigers went just 8-25 from the arc. But Harris accounted for four of those makes.
“I am having a lot of fun, but without my teammates Jeremiah and A-Lo none of this would be possible,” Harris said. “They find me a lot and it makes it easier for me. It feels good to get that losing taste out of our mouths.”
Next up for the Tigers (4-4) will be former conference rivals the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers. Tipoff is Saturday, Dec. 8 at noon. The Memphis Grizzlies play the Los Angeles Lakers later that night.