The Memphis Tigers went into Hattiesburg, MS with an awful lot on the line.
They had the second-longest winning streak in the country at 13 games, one behind Akron of the Mid-America Conference. There was a 9-game winning streak in conference play. And after the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles stumbled at Central Florida on Wednesday night, Memphis wanted to maintain sole possession of first place in Conference USA.
Mission accomplished on all counts.
In a game which might have been the most important one of the entire season for Memphis, the Tigers put together one of their best performances of the year, playing well on both offense and defense for 40 solid minutes in a convincing 89-76 victory over the Golden Eagles in front of a crowd of 7,864.
The loss snapped a 23-game home winning streak for Southern Miss, who fell to 18-6 overall and 7-2 in the conference on the season. The victorious Tigers advanced to 20-3 and 9-0, moving to a commanding 2-game lead in C-USA with seven games left in league action.
The game marked the Tigers' most complete effort of the season, in a hostile environment and against a tough, determined foe.
Memphis led for almost the entire game, with Southern Mississippi not going away before fading late in the contest. Each team came out of the blocks scorching from the field. But while Memphis ended the game shooting a season-high 55.9 percent from the floor, USM cooled and managed 47.7 percent.
Though that was still a good percentage, for all intents and purposes, that was the ball game, right there.
One of the keys to the game was the Tiger's ability to hit the three-ball. Chris Crawford came off the bench absolutely blazing, draining four (4) first half three-pointers as Memphis ran away from Southern Miss on the way to a 47-39 halftime lead.
When Crawford subbed into the game with 13:35 left in the first, Memphis trailed, 16-14. First, the junior from Memphis Sheffield assisted on consecutive dunks by fellow Memphian Tarik Black to put Memphis back into a tie at 21-all. Crawford then nailed his first trey to move the Tigers into the lead, 24-23.
His second triple of the half gave Memphis the lead for good, 27-26, with 8:25 left in the first half. Crawford then fed D.J. Stephens for a dunk and a three-point lead (29-26), and by the time his fourth and final triple of the half nestled into the net--he hit them on consecutive possessions--Memphis had finally managed to give themselves some breathing room, 35-28.
Crawford finished the game with 16 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 1 block and 2 steals in 30 minutes of action off the Tiger bench.
Memphis kept the accelerator to the floor all afternoon, never letting the lead slip below three (54-51 with 14:58 to go in the game) and leading by as much as 14 on two occasions (81-67, 87-73).
Geron Johnson was a galvanizing force all afternoon long for the Tigers, on both sides of the ball. He shared ball-handling duty with Joe Jackson and Crawford, often singlehandedly beating the stifling pressure of the Golden Eagles. He also managed 4 steals of his own, as Memphis harassed the home team into 15 turnovers.
But Johnson's most impressive contribution was his career-high 25 points, including a stellar 4-of-7 performance from beyond the 3-point arc. Johnson's total stat line was eye-popping: team highs of 25 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals, against just a single turnover, while playing 39 minutes.
Joining Johnson and Crawford in double-figures were Stephens and Adonis Thomas with 11 points each. Jackson continued his recent scoring slump with just 9 points, but added 6 assists against a single turnover in 36 minutes of action while controlling the basketball and maintaining his poise against a Southern Miss press that produces 12 steals a game.
Memphis managed an astounding 27 assists on 33 made baskets.