With the University of Memphis trailing for the first time in this young season and down by three in the first half to Saint Louis, the Tigers asserted their defense and that pretty much ended the upset plans of the visiting Billikens at FedExForum on Tuesday night.
Undefeated coming in against the No. 11 Tigers (3-0), the Billikens (3-1) briefly kept up with the Tigers before Memphis – riding a defense that disrupted Saint Louis’ offensive flow – spurted ahead to stay and won 90-74. Memphis led by as many as 17 in the first half, which ended with the Tigers up 42-27.
Although the sample size is small, the Tigers so far this year have managed to establish first-half leads that they’ve built upon after halftime. The Billikens only could get as close as 12 points, with the lead hovering around 20 points.
The defense was the collective star of the game for the Tigers as the Billikens were held to 31.2 percent shooting. Memphis blocked 14 shots, just one short of the team record.
Jalen Duren was a rim protector in the first degree, blocking six shots (as many as Saint Louis had total) and altering many more. Landers Nolley II, who was not feeling well prior to the game, finished with a team high 10 rebounds; and he had three blocked shots.
“We are the second tallest team in the NCAA and we are using our length,” said University of Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway. “I am proud of the guys for rim protecting.”
Travis Ford, Saint Louis’ head coach, said, “I thought we competed. It is hard to simulate what they do. I watched both (previous) games they played. I give them credit for us not playing well. We played against a great team. They will be by the end of the year. They are going to be hard to deal with.”
Memphis shot 54.4 percent from the floor and 47.1 percent (8/17) from deep. The scoring was led by Tyler Harris (18 points), who got a welcome-home reception from the crowd that appreciated his return from Iowa State, where he transferred following his first two years with the Tigers.
“I am really proud of Tyler Harris,” said Hardaway, acknowledging “an uncomfortable situation” for Harris, who is used to being a minutes-getter but is not starting for a Memphis program that has had a serious talent upgrade since his departure.
“I talked to him when he came back here,” said Hardaway. “I said, ‘I believe in you, but it is going to be tough this time around, because we have so much talent. I am going to try to find a way to get you some minutes.’”
Harris played 19 minutes, also registering an assist and one rebound.
“It felt really good out helping my teammates,” said Harris. “I was out there having fun and smiling out there. I have been trying to do that the entire season. It has worked out for me.”
Reflecting on the fans’ ovation, Harris said, “It felt good, like that is the way it is supposed to be. … like a moment that I have already lived.”
Harris has a game plan for being ready when called upon.
“When I was at Iowa State we were not winning. When I look up (now) I am happy that we have the talent to win. I just want to come and help the team to boost up and stay positive.”
Emoni Bates, who continued to dazzle with crisp passes and deadly three-pointers, finished with 16 points. Jalen Duren had 13 points and Josh Minott, who fouled out for the second straight game, had 12 points.
Bates said the Tigers were prepared for what they expected from Saint Louis.
“We knew what the game plan was for them,” he said. “They was going to come out and play us as hard as they can. We just had to stay composed as a team and attack the defense.”
Jordan Nesbitt, who played for the Tigers last season, started for the Billikens, finishing with 13 points. Terrence Hargrove Jr. led the way for Saint Louis with 20 points.
The ugly – and no way to hide it – factor for Memphis was 24 turnovers. And still the Tigers had complete control of most of the game.
“It is strange and scary; they took 20 more shots (77 to 57) then us,” said Hardaway. “When a team takes 20 more shots than you … and gets 23 offensive rebounds, you (often) lose by 20. It is a true testament to who we are and how we keep scraping and finding a way. The field goal percentages (are) what keeps up going.”
Next up for the Tigers: Memphis returns to the court at FedExForum on Friday (Nov. 19) to host Western Kentucky at 7 p.m. The Hilltoppers defeated the Tigers last year in South Dakota as part of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic.