The Memphis Tigers closed out a December slate that was all home games with a hard-fought victory over Loyola (MD), 78-64, in front of 16,455 fans at the FedEx Forum.
The Greyhounds, representing the Mid-America Athletic Conference (MAAC), did not lead for the last 39:27 of the game, and never led by more than two points, but gave the Tigers a stiff test to close out the calendar year 2012. Loyola pasted Memphis on the glass, out-rebounding the Tigers, 42-29 on the night.
However, the Memphis defense logged another impressive performance, holding the visitors to just 37.9 percent overall (25-of-66) and an anemic 16.7 percent (just 2-of-12) from 3-point range. The Tigers also harassed the Greyhounds into 19 turnovers for the game.
Memphis head coach Josh Pastner was pleased with his team's effort.
"That's a good win," he said in the postgame press conference. "That's a good team that we played. That's an NCAA tournament team. Extremely well-coached and they played hard, that team plays hard. That's a good win for us, there's no doubt that's a good win for us. They're improved from last year and they have a majority of their team back, and that's a really strong win for us."
Memphis has struggled from beyond the arc for most of the season, but shot 5-12 (41.7 percent) from downtown, including 5-of-8 (62.5 percent) in the first half. Pastner fingered the 3-point shooting, along with his team's defensive proficiency, as key reasons why Memphis was able to maintain control of the basketball game.
"We won the game because we held them to under 40 percent from the field and obviously under 30 percent from the three, which ended up being 16 percent," Pastner pointed out. "And we had 18 assists on 22 made field goals, we made free-throws and the reason we ended the first half with a four point lead was because we made three-point shots. I've always said that's the equalizer and we made three of those in the first half to allow us to have a four-point lead."
The Tigers led by as much as 10 on three different occasions in the first half (20-10, 26-16 and 28-18) but couldn't put the pesky Greyhounds away, settling into a 37-33 halftime advantage.
Loyola promptly scored the first four points of the second half to pull into their only tie of the game, 37-37, before an Adonis Thomas layup gave Memphis the lead for good, 39-37. Still, Memphis didn't take full control of the game until after Loyola had cut the lead to one, 53-52, with 11:19 left in the contest.
The Tigers pulled away with an 11-0 run, capped by an emphatic D.J. Stephens fast break dunk for a 64-52 Memphis lead with 7:11 to go.
The lead never dropped below nine points again.
With Tarik Black sidelined, Memphis played a small line-up most of the night. It led to some problems on the boards, but that was not an acceptable excuse for a minus-13 rebounding margin in Coach Pastner's book.
"They kicked our butt on the glass," he commented. "We were going small, so you've got to give them credit. I jumped our guys at halftime and said, 'Hey man, this isn't a strategy thing. If there was a certain play that was killing us or a certain action that I could switch and do something different defensively, but this was just rebounding, this is just a mentality.'
"I know we went small at times, but you've just got to find a way to come up with it. You've got to stick your nose in there and come up with 50-50 balls, you've got to come up with rebounds. I told Joe Jackson, it's ridiculous, you've got one rebound. I said for us to win this came, when we come back to the half, you've got to have four and five defensive rebounds, and to his credit, he ended up with four rebounds and some tough, hard-nosed 50-50 balls as did some of our other guys. Second half, the reason we were able to pull away was because we came up with 50-50 balls and stuck our nose in there for some tough rebounds."
Speaking of Jackson, the Tigers' quicksilver junior guard had yet another stellar contest, leading Memphis in points (22), assists (7) and free throws made (10) while tying for second on the team in rebounds (4). Shaq Goodwin added 15 points and three rebounds, Geron Johnson chipped in with 10 points and a team-high three blocks, and Stephens led the team with seven rebounds to go along with eight points.
Memphis survived a scary moment which hushed the crowd about mid-way through the first half. Junior guard Antonio Barton dove into the stands for a loose ball and laid out, writhing in obvious pain. He had to be assisted to the locker room and everyone held their breath, assuming the worst.
The news ended up being positive, as Barton returned to log another 14 minutes in the second half.
"Antonio Barton, they told me he might be done for the year and as I was going into halftime that he was out," Pastner reported afterward. "Then he could come back in and play, so that was a wide range of emotion. From broken this to broken that, and it was a bruised shin. So that was good."
Memphis heads into the month of January with a 9-3 mark, while Loyola MD fell to 9-5. Next up for Memphis is a visit to their in-state nemesis, Tennessee, on January 4, where native Memphian Jarnell Stokes and senior Jeronne Maymon await. The game tips off at 7:00 p.m. and is being televised on ESPN2.