The Tigers' Alex Lomax (right) -- the lone senior honored on Senior Day -- seizes this loose ball in the big win over Houston. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)
Terry Davis

The win – Memphis 75, Houston 61 – was huge for the NCAA Tournament-hungry Memphis Tigers.

And, for Memphis senior Alex Lomax, it was a victory that will resonate years from now as he moves about his basketball-crazed hometown.

On Senior Day and with the heightened possibility of a win over the highly-ranked Houston Cougars securing a bid to the NCAA’s March Madness battle, the Tigers rode the wave of momentum, drawing upon the support of an energy-juiced FedExForum crowd on Sunday.

“The crowd was like the sixth man,” said Lomax. “Some teams just can’t handle it. I felt like they (Houston) got nervous when the energy was there. It was so loud you could feel it in your body. I know they felt it and it can make you make a terrible pass.”

Lomax wasn’t the game’s star, but he played solid – 8 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists. When it was over, he was happy to be able to look back and say, “I am glad we brought the energy and came out and put on a show for the fans.”

Alex Lomax takes center court as the source of appreciation on Senior Day for the University of Memphis Tigers. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

The crowd was electric, with the energy magnified by a declared whiteout. NCAA Tournament talk by many professional observers pointed to Memphis getting off the tournament bubble – and maybe out of the play-in game in Dayton in the opening round – with a win of the No. 16-ranked Cougars.

Led by Kyler Edwards with 19 points, the Cougars (26-5, 15-3 AAC) are the regular-season American Athletic Conference champions. The Tigers (19-9, 13-5 AAC) have won 10 of their last 11 games entering next week’s AAC Tournament. Memphis swept the season series for the first time under coach Hardaway.

Memphis jumped out to an early 4-0 lead, forced early turnovers and quickly expanded its lead to 16-9.  The Cougars had an unusually high number of turnovers (20), which led to 28 Tigers points. Houston trailed by as many as 23 points in the game and was down nearly 20 points the entire second half. The Tigers led at halftime 49-29.

Landers Nolley II comes up with a steal as Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway eyes the possibility. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

“What an unbelievable game, with everything that was riding on it,” said Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway. “To have a team that was beaten up since the beginning to come through the storm and have an opportunity to showcase who we are to the nation against one of the top teams in the country for the second time around is amazing.

“It is a great day to be a Tiger.”

Every time the lead got under 20 points the FedExForum crowd rose to its collective feet, responding with a blast of energy. Memphis was led by Tyler Harris, another homegrown talent, with 15 points off the bench. Lester Quinones and Landers Nolley II had 11 points each.

Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway talks to Lester Quinones during a timeout. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

Hardaway spoke to the fans after the win.

“The entire season flashed before me,” said Hardaway, “and the fans were in there cheering. It was a surreal moment. They knew how much we need them, and they came out and supported us in Tiger fashion.”

Hardaway, who coached Harris and Lomax at East High School, put the senior Lomax’s journey in context.

“For as much as he has gone through, from de-committing from Wichita State to come to Memphis. Having a lot of expectations, starting as a freshman with Tyler Harris and Jeremiah Martin in the backcourt. To go through all of those years and not having reached an NCAA tournament and not going out a winner was bothering him.

“To be the only guy to walk out and get the attention (on Senior Day), that was formidable for him as the guy that has been here for four years straight. To get that warm welcome and have a good game, you could not end it any better.”

With COVID-19 restrictions in place during Memphis’ NIT Championship run last year, the Tigers did not get a chance to experience the delirium-level heights their fans can reach.

“I am used to it,” said Hardaway, harkening to his days as a Memphis State University (now University of Memphis star.) It is good to be back here.”

While it still is possible that the cards could stack in such a way that the Tigers miss the NCAA Tournament, what seemed like long-shot odds going into February now are in their favor.

“It (making the tournament after a prolonged absence) was a goal for us,” said Harris. “I told Alo (Alex Lomax) a month ago that we can’t go out like that and not make the tournament. People in Memphis would hold that against us for the rest of our lives.”

Hmmm. Well, the truth of that thought likely will not have to be tested.

Tyler Harris maneuvers into the paint and puts up his floater. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

“I am a player that feeds off the crowd,” said Harris, happy to have fans “here supporting us. Alo and I are from here, as most of the fans. They just have to have our backs; we just have to have our backs to get the win.”

Ranked in the Top 10 at one point, the Tigers went into a free fall with injuries and COVID-19 complications. Unnerved by a reporter’s question during that period, Hardaway lashed out in a verbal comeback that triggered national headlines before he quickly issued an apology, notably to the school, fans and his players.

Now comes March and the possibility of NCAA Tournament madness.

“I feel blessed,” said Hardaway. “The guys came together at the right time. It was like spiritual momentum … with the prayers for the team; guys leaving their egos at the door and coming together as one. … We have relied on one another and put everything on the line.”

Although the graduating Lomax could return for a fifth season because of allowances for the COVID-19 interruption, it has not been announced as a certainty that he will. Lomax, Harris and DeAndre Williams each is a classified senior. In March 2020 amid the pandemic, the NCAA approved legislation extending players’ eligibility.

Lomax chose to treat Senior Day “as if COVID never happened,” taking in the emotions of the day.

“It has been a roller coaster and we are on top,” Lomax said. “I love Tiger Nation.”

Memphis’ homegrown backcourt of Alex Lomax (left) and Tyler Harris applies defensive pressure on Jamal Shead of Houston. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

As for the likelihood of having made the NCAA Tournament, he said, “It is definitely a great feeling … when it has been a 10-year drought. Me and Tyler had a chance to do something special.

“No matter how long it takes, as long as the goal gets accomplished. We had a great time doing it.”

NOTE: The AAC Tournament gets underway Thursday (March 10) in Fort Worth, Texas. The Tigers enter as the No. 3 seed behind Houston and SMU. The New Tri-State Defender will generate coverage from Fort Worth, so check back here at TSDMemphis.com.

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