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Tigers staying on the winning track with tunnel vision

The mind games between the University of Memphis Tigers and the Wichita State Shockers started long before tipoff last Sunday afternoon at FedExForum. The Shockers were not too happy with how the Tigers were dancing after slamming the Shockers with an 18-point loss on New Year’s Day.

The Tigers got wind of the talk that the Shockers were doing before the rematch and made it a point to start the game with a dialed-in mentality. They jumped out to a 12-2 lead, rolled on to a 20-9 advantage and left the Shockers on the receiving in of an 81-57 shellacking.

Recalling the Tigers’ New Year’s Day win, Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway said the rematch was a big game against a team that he expected to be fired up.

Coach Penny Hardaway has the Tigers’ attention during this time out. (Photo: Warren Roseborough)

“That team has a lot of pride. They won our league last year,” said Hardaway. (The guys stepped in a big way the way we needed it.”

Hardaway’s Tigers (17-9, 11-5 American Athletic Conference) now have defeated Wichita State (13-12, 4-9 AAC) seven out of the last eight times. Memphis held the AAC preseason player of the year candidate, Tyson Etienne, to only 11 points.  He entered the game averaging 15-plus points a game.

Growing the lead to as much as 28 points, the Tigers were in control throughout. They were led by Landers Nolley II’s season-high 22 points. He connected on 4-of-6 from deep and 7-of-10 shots from the field overall. Jalen Duren added 13 points, seven rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals, and Lester Quinones and DeAndre Williams had 12 points apiece.

Nolley has been rolling since the Houston game.

“He is a basketball player. When he is happy, he plays at a very high level. That is where I want him to stay,” said Hardaway. “We are getting him shots and he is knocking down shots. His hard work while having a leg injury is big for us.”

“I contribute it to my teammates,” said Nolley, responding to why he is playing well. “When they see me make a couple of shots, they continue to find me and keep me going. If it costs us a couple of turnovers, they try to continue to find me.”

Landers Nolley II of the Tigers drives by Morris Udeze of Wichita State. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

Nolley started hot against Wichita State.

“When you start a game off like that, it gives you an amazing amount of confidence,” he said.

After a monster February in which they only lost one game, the Tigers have resuscitated their NCAA Tournament aspirations.

“I feel like this year we do control our own destiny,” said Nolley. “If we lose, we know it is on us. If we win it is for the better cause. This year versus last year is big, because we know if we win out, we are going to the tournament. If we lose, we know it is on us.”

Lester Quinones had a similar thought pattern.

Memphis’ Lester Quinones shoots a 3-pointer over Ricky Council IV of Wichita State. He scored 12 points. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

“We are not focused on looking at others to lose,” said Quinones. “We are just depending on us to win. If we win the games we are supposed to win, there should be nothing to worry about.”

From his vantage point, Hardaway believes the Tigers have done enough to make the NCAA Tournament, specifically beating Houston at Houston and defeating Alabama and Virginia Tech.

“We have done some things some other teams have not. If you go by our quad one wins, we have done better than some other teams,” said Hardaway. “We lost some games very early in the season. Since we have had our whole team back, we have only lost one game.”

Next up for the Tigers is a Thursday (March 3) matchup on the road against the AAC’s last-place team, South Florida. The goal, said Hardaway, is for the Tigers to keep their “tunnel vision and not trying to overlook anyone. South Florida played a great game last night (Feb. 26) at Cincinnati. They are capable at home.

“We know it is not going to be easy. We are in a position to take care of ourselves.  We have to stay strong and together.”

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