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March 9, 2013

Tigers burn Blazers

It was four players' last home game as a Memphis Tiger. But the one that stood out was the usual suspect of the group - senior forward D.J. Stephens. He made a lasting impression on the 18,289 Tigers fans that packed the building as he and The University of Memphis Tigers (27-4, 16-0 in Conference USA) finished off the UAB Blazers (15-16, 7-9 in C-USA) 86-71 - and the regular season undefeated for just the fourth time in school history.

"To go 16-0 in league play is special," said Josh Pastner, head coach for the Tigers. "It is not a given, not a birthright, u can't take those things for granted. And to think where we started, a lot of negativity being thrown in our direction, the slow start in the Bahamas - we stayed the course and we appreciate it, because its so hard to do."

There were a lot of storylines heading into this game. The Tigers were playing their last game in Conference USA before they head to what's left of The Big East. If Memphis won, they would finish the season undefeated and become just the fifth team in conference history to do so. And it was a day to remember the four seniors - Charles Holt, Ferrakohn Hall, Stan Simpson and Stephens for their Tiger careers, but the biggest storyline of the day came from sophomore guard Joe Jackson.

In arguably his best game as a Tiger, Jackson nearly came away with a triple-double. He scored 17 points, dished out 10 assists and pulled down nine rebounds - not to mention he also had 6 steals which would have given him a rare quadruple-double if he had four more and one more rebound.

"I'm just playing within myself and not trying to do too much," Jackson said. "I had it stripped out of my hand and I was trying to get it, but it's hard when you know you're right at it - but it is what it is."

The game was not without drama either. After being up by as many as 15 points at halftime, Memphis let up on the gas out of halftime and allowed UAB to go on a 15-2 run that cut the lead to 45-44 at the 14:41 mark on a Jordan Swing three. But the heart, soul and effort machine of the team D.J. Stephens stepped up and showed that senior leadership. He converted a three-point play that eventually sparked the Tigers and they went on to pull away as they wore down the Blazers. They increased the lead to as many as 21 before Pastner emptied the bench to give the rest of the seniors a chance to play on their day.

"For all four of us to be able to walk off the court together for the last time made me happy," Stephens said. "People told me to go kiss the Tiger at midcourt when I walked off - and that's been done before. But one of the coaches said we may get a technical for that," Stephens said. So I decided to kiss the rim and that's never been done."

Four Tigers in all scored in double figures against UAB. Stephens, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford all helped carry the scoring load with Jackson. They each finished with 13, 19 and 20 points respectively. The Tigers also shot a very respectable 52.6 percent from downtown, but struggled again from the stripe, going 16-of-23.

Up next for Memphis is the Conference USA Tournament, which starts Wednesday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since the Tigers are the No.1-seed in the tournament they have a bye and will play Thursday at 6pm with the winner TBD.


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