With ESPN's College GameDay and the No. 23 Gonzaga Bulldogs in town, members of the True Blue Nation packed the FedExForum Saturday night (Feb. 8). They came with great expectations and the Tigers delivered with a 60-54 win.
For most of the first half, Gonzaga controlled the pace. They were able to force Memphis into a half court set and the Tigers' offense looked non-existent.
Memphis started to speed things up with around five minutes remaining in the half, but the Bulldogs seemed to have an answer every time the Tigers tried to rally.
Down the stretch, a bit of luck on an inbounds play with one second on the shot clock led to a Memphis offensive rebound and a Chris Crawford three-point basket. Chipping away at the lead, Crawford would covert another three in the waning minutes of the first half. Still, the Tigers would trail 25-22 at halftime.
At the beginning of the second half, Gonzaga would knock down a couple of quick buckets and the bulldogs' lead grew (30-22). Much to the dismay of the crowd, the Bulldogs continued to control the pace and their advantage expanded to twelve points (42-30) with about 14 minutes remaining in regulation.
Just when it looked like the Tigers might be fading, they got the spark they desperately needed. Shaq Goodwin gambled on defense by fronting his opponent, the seven-foot-one-inch Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski received the lob entry pass into an open lane and an uncontested dunk appeared imminent.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the 6-foot Joe Jackson rose to the occasion and denied the 7 footer the easy basket. The highlight block earned Jackson ESPN's number one play on the SportsCenter Top Ten countdown for Saturday night and shook the dazed crowd back to life.
After trailing by 12, the Tigers trimmed the lead to 2 with just over eight minutes remaining (44-42).
The atmosphere was electric; however, with Tiger forward Dominic Woodson ejected early in the second half and Goodwin in foul trouble, it looked like the battle on the block would be the Tigers' demise.
Gonzaga pounded the ball down low and the lead swelled back to nine with five minutes remaining. Michael Dixon Jr. kept the Tigers' hopes alive with a big three and a difficult transition layup.
Coming off the bench late in the game, Nick King contributed quality minutes by grabbing big rebounds and providing much needed defensive support.
Memphis took the lead back with 1:12 remaining via a Dixon layup and the next possession essentially sealed the Bulldogs fate. The Tigers' ferocious defense forced a turnover by way of a shot clock violation.
It all came down to free throws and Memphis converted enough as the last seconds ticked off the clock. The Bulldogs were stunned and he hometown crowd erupted in elation as the final horn sounded.
After the game, Dixon was quick to heap praise on his fellow teammates.
"A lot of guys stepped up, Nick King, Dominic Woodson," he said. "We got down, but we didn't fold."
Every player pointed to Jackson's incredible block as the catalyst for the comeback. "You can't do anything but play hard after that," Goodwin remarked.
It was only fitting that Jackson made the big play, being that it was his birthday! The 60-54 win was the 100th victory as Tigers for Jackson and the rest of the four-year seniors.
"It was the best birthday ever," said Jackson.
NOTE: It's back to conference play, as the Tigers take on Central Florida on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the FedExForum. The game will be broadcast on one of the ESPN networks.