The University of Memphis has sealed a regular season conference title and a first round bye in the C-USA tournament. With three games remaining on the schedule, the Tigers are merely playing for seeding in the NCAA tournament.
After a big let down on the road last week against Xavier, Memphis knows that another loss from this point forward could substantially affect the number in front of its name when the brackets are filled. And with back-to-back road games against UCF and UTEP still left, the Tigers had to be focused to come away with wins.
So when they took the court against UCF (Mar. 2), the Tigers had to know they were going to get the Knights' (No. 2 in C-USA) best effort. The game was definitely heated. At halftime, the U of M led 34-29, but the game was far from sealed.
Just five minutes into the second half, UCF had rallied to within one. And they wouldn't go away. Memphis was able to stretch the lead, but the Knights would keep it close.
Tempers flavored as the game came to a close. Tigers' guard Joe Jackson received a technical foul and was sent to the locker room with mere seconds remaining. Yet, Memphis was able to come away with a 76-67 victory in hostile territory.
Up next, a trip to El Paso to take on the Miners, who were led by prolific coach Tim Floyd. Historically, the Don Haskins Center has been a tough place for the Tigers to come away with a win. Tuesday night (Mar. 5) would be no different.
After the first 20 minutes, the teams were locked at 22. UTEP did a great job defending the Tigers in the first half, holding Memphis to its second lowest point total in a half this year (20 at Xavier).
As the second half started to unfold, it became clear that this game was going to go to the wire.
With about three minutes left on the clock, the scored was tied (51-51). The Tigers would go up by three in the next minute, but the last 60 seconds were the most interesting. Up by two, with five ticks remaining, Tarik Black fouled UTEP's C.J. Cooper during a desperation three-point attempt.
If Cooper had connected on all three free throws, the Miners would have held a one-point advantage with seconds to go; however, he missed the first shot. He made the second to bring the Miners within two and was forced to miss the third on purpose, in hopes that one of his teammates could come away with the rebound and a tip-in for the tie.
Black stopped that plan in its tracks. He got the rebound and was immediately fouled. Two converted attempts from the charity stripe would've sealed the deal.
But poor free throw shooting has plagued the Tigers this season, and Black missed the front end of the 1 and 1. A stroke of luck for Memphis came as Miners' players fought for the rebound and knocked it out of bounds.
The game seemed in the Tigers' grasp, but the excitement wasn't over. Geron Johnson tried to heave the ball to the backcourt to Joe Jackson to simply run the time off. Instead, the pass stolen by Jacques Streeter, who chunked up an off-balanced shot as the final horn sounded.
The shot never really had a chance and Memphis was able to close out their final road trip with two straight wins. The Tigers now return home for their last home game against UAB this Saturday (Mar. 9).
In front of the home crowd, a win would improve the Tigers to 16-0 in conference, their last season in the C-USA. This seems like a real possibility and will only give Memphis more momentum headed into the conference tourney in Tulsa.
The Tigers are currently ranked No. 25 in the nation. If they win out, including the C-USA tournament, it will likely land them a seven seed in the big dance in a couple weeks.
But a loss would be very costly, potentially dropping Memphis to an 8 or 9 seed, if not lower. An 8 or 9 is not a favorable seed, not only because they would have to play a very evenly-matched opponent in the first round, but it would also match them against a No. 1 seed in the second round.