Isaiah Maurice puts up a jumper against the USF Bulls in the Tigers' 75-73 setback. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Beware: Tough matchup ahead on the road against the Bearcats of Cincinnati. That is what the University of Memphis Tigers are facing after a that-hurts loss to the University of South Florida at the FedExForum on Saturday.

Already on shaky ground regarding a hoped-for invitation to the NCAA Tournament, the Tiger’s path got murkier with a 75-73 loss to the Bulls in front of 17,314 at home.

“We are doing whatever it takes to fight our way out,” head coach Penny Hardayway said after the game and in reference to injuries that are complicating things for the Tigers (17-6, 6-4 American). “We have to just keep fighting.”

The matchup against USF (11-12) was the last of a three-game homestand and came with the Tigers on a three-game winning streak. Memphis had to adjust its substitution rotation with Malcolm Dandridge not available for the game.

And then there were the fouls that forced several players to the bench with two fouls in the first half. When the horn sounded at the break, Precious Achiuwa had only played five minutes, Boogie Ellis had logged eight minutes and another starter, Damion Baugh, also was saddled with two fouls.

Precious Achiuwa drives against the Bulls’ defense. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Still, the Tigers took a 34-31 lead into halftime, getting a solid contribution from Isaiah Maurice game with four points in 10 minutes. Tyler Harris scored nine points, making 3 of 5 three-point shots. Alex Lomax and Achiuwa each scored six points in the half.

While Harris was hot from deep in the half, the Tigers only made 3 of 13 three-point shots and missed six free throws. On the plus side, Memphis only had four turnovers at the half.

The start of the second half did not go very well for the Tigers. Within the first seven seconds, Achiuwa was whistled for his third personal foul.

On paper the game was closely contested.  Memphis made 26 baskets and USF made 25. Each team ended up making eight, three-point baskets.  The difference in the game was in rebounds. The absence of Achiuwa and Dandridge contributed to Memphis being out rebounded 41 to 29.

Falling behind by as many as nine points on multiple occasions, the Tigers fought back and tied the game at 68 on a Lomax three-pointer. Achiuwa and Thomas exited the game late with injuries.

“With Malcolm being out, (that) was a huge blow,” said Hardaway, “and Lance and Precious going out in crunch time. We had to go small ball.”

The defense of the Tigers could not get critical stops in the final plays of the game.  The Bulls’ Xavier Castaneda and Laquincy Rideau made big baskets to give South Florida a 72-68 lead with 22 seconds left.

The Tigers had another opportunity when Castaneda missed a free-throw with his team leading 73-70, but they could not get the rebound.

David Collins and Rideau led the way for the Bulls with 21 points each. Justin Brown had 14 points and grabbed 16 rebounds.

The Bulls always seem to play their best basketball when they play the Tigers.  Bulls head coach Brian Gregory said, “We have played them well at home.

“They are Memphis. They are a national brand,” said Bulls head coach Brian Gregory. “Our guys are competitive kids. One thing they (the Tigers) do really well is get out on the break. That is where we are best too. They are a great matchup for us.”

Memphis had four players in double figures: Harris 17, Lomax and Ellis, 14 and Lester Quinones, 10 points.

Alex Lomax on the move. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Acknowledging “a bad loss for us,” Lomax said, “We have a lot of guys out. We are trying to make sure those guys are good mentally and make sure they get good physically also.”

Hardaway said the Bulls were “hungry and did what it took. We didn’t get it done.  We got into foul trouble in the first half and that started our downfall as a team. We never got into a rhythm; A total embarrassment today. …

“We held it together to go into halftime up three. We were never (able to) get over the hump in the second half. We can feel when a team gets confidence. Our Achilles’ heel, our one-on-one defense at the end of the game, we were not able to get any stops.”

Asked what would it mean for this team of Tigers to make the NCAA tournament, Hardaway said, “It would mean a lot. It would mean we are heading in the right direction. I think we are heading in the right direction.  We have had a lot of unfortunate things to happen to us this year. It would mean a lot for his city.”

Next:

The Tigers play the Cincinnati Bearcats (15-8) on the road on Thursday (February 13).