FORT WORTH, Texas –- For the NCAA Tournament-bound Memphis Tigers, securing the American Athletic Conference Tournament title with a win over Houston, the No. 1 ranked team in the country, was a business matter settled on the court of the Laurie-Walton Center.
Memphis’ 75-65 victory in the championship game netted the automatic bid the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Tournament champs get to the NCAA’s “Big Dance.”
The Tigers (26-8), seeded No. 8 in the NCAA Tournament’s Eastern Region bracket, have a date in Columbus, Ohio with No. 9 Florida Atlantic of Conference USA on Friday (Mar. 17). The two teams will be conference foes when FAU moves to the AAC next season.
After losing twice in the regular season to Tulane and Houston, Memphis arrived in Fort Worth with something to prove in the AAC Tournament. They drubbed Tulane by 40 points in the semifinal game, which set up the much-anticipated matchup of the tournament’s top two seeds.
“That (revenge against Tulane and Houston) is something we wanted,” said reserve guard Alex Lomax. “We didn’t want it any other way. We wanted to play the guys that handled their business in the regular season. We had to come out and show that we made a lot of adjustments. We made sure we handled business.”
Playing without injured point guard Kendric Davis in the first regular-season game against Houston, the Tigers lost by eight. In the season-ending matchup, the Cougar’s claimed the win with a basket right before time expired.
“Coach coached us hard after the buzzer beater,” said Davis, a First Team, All-Conference selection. “We lost a couple of games like that and we always responded. We knew no team could beat us three times in a row. Coach made it clear that we were the better team.”
Memphis had come up empty in 11 previous attempts to beat a No. 1-ranked team. They took on Houston without AAC Player of Year Marcus Sasser, who suffered a groin injury in the Cougars’ semifinal win over Cincinnati.
The conference tournament title was Memphis’ first in 10 years.
“I am thanking God for this,” said U of M coach Penny Hardaway, sharing praise for “a great group of guys that no one knew what we were going to do, but us.
“To battle, scratch and fight all year long through injuries and adversaries, to be here in the same situation we had last year, to get the win I am proud and emotional….”
Taking the title after successfully navigating through such a challenging road “shows how special this team is,” he said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better road. Barely winning against UCF at home. Lose to a buzzer beater at home to Houston. Getting beat twice by Tulane. It was a tough road, but rewarding.”
The game was tight in the first six minutes as the teams traded the lead. With 11:22 left in the first half and the Tigers ahead 17-16, Memphis shifted to another gear.
Back-to-back three pointers by Davis helped power Memphis to a 38-20 advantage with 4:14 remaining in the first half. After pushing the lead to 20, the took a 46-31 lead into halftime.
Davis scored 20 points in the first half as the Tigers shot 62 percent from the field and limited their turnovers to four. Memphis’ defense held the Cougars to 29.7 percent shooting.
Houston was not done. Riding a second-half surge, the Cougars kept snipping at the lead, getting it down to single digits. With the gap narrowed to five points, DeAndre Williams’ shot from deep pushed the Memphis lead back to eight (58-50).
As the teams battled on, a steal and a layup by Lomax, who was fouled on the play, gave the Tigers a 68-55 lead with 5:20 to go and Houston could not muster enough to overtake them.
The Cougars (31-3) enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seedwill be a number one seed and will play in Birmingham.
Jamal Shead had 16 points to lead the Cougars, who also got 13 points from Jarace Walker, with J’Wan Roberts adding 12 points and 20 rebounds.
Memphis was led by 31 points from Davis, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Williams, the other First Team, All-Conference selection for the Tigers, had another double-double 16 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists. Lomax had 10 points and 4 assists.
“It is hard to win at this level,” said Davis, who bent over and clutched his knees as he reflected on being part of tournament-winning team.
“The previous two years, I had to go through Alo (Alex Lomax) and coach (Penny Hardaway), that ain’t easy,” said Davis, who transferred from SMU after three years with the Mustangs and earning the AAC’s Player of the Year award last season.
“We (the Mustangs) were almost there last year, but they (the Tigers) got us. We had to watch them get in the tournament. The year before last we were in the NIT with them and they won it. I was wondering would it ever happen for me.
“I came back to college to see if would happen. I joined them dudes; they are warriors.”
Hardaway was asked to reflect on the state championships he engineered at East High School, the Tigers’ NIT title and the AAC Tournament Championship.
“The ones in high school were so near and dear to my heart for Desmond (Merriweather, the childhood friend, who reached out to Hardaway (in 2012) to step in for him as coach of the Lester Middle School team after learning he had terminal colon cancer. I met that group at a very early age.
“The NIT Championship was bitter sweet, because we wanted to be in the NCAA tournament,” said Hardaway.
“This one is so rewarding, because of what we had to go through; the injures and the guys we lost. Everyone counted us out before the season got started. They did not know where we were heading.”