It happened in the middle of a blowout in the second half of a game the Memphis Tigers were maybe not supposed even to be in with the way the team had played throughout the 2016 season. Yet, when a reporter brought it up, it immediately got Shaq Goodwin cracking up.
Dedric Lawson scored two of his 17 points with a difficult crossover move to free up some space and then a fadeaway over a Tulane Green Wave player, drawing a foul. The shot fit nicely into the basket and put an exclamation point on Memphis’ 74-54 win over Tulane on Saturday to advance to the American Athletic Conference Tournament Final on Sunday at Amway Center.
This was a game where Memphis could enjoy the moment. The team put all the work in and all the thought and focus in to secure the victory and become the tournament’s Cinderella — fighting for a trip to the NCAA Tournament that it surely could only get with the automatic berth a tournament championship could provide.
Opportunity is present for the Tigers.
“I believe the more positive energy that we can have the better,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “We have been inconsistent this year. Obviously there has been a lot of negativity that we have encountered, and rightly so in a lot of areas based on some of our games that we have dropped. It is good to see those young men have a good time and enjoy the win and not take it for granted because it’s hard to do that. Winning is very hard to do.”
But so too is staying in the moment. That has been a big key for Memphis as the team tried to shake off some cobwebs of a difficult conference season and realize all the potential that had many slotting Memphis into the Tournament early in the season.
For whatever reason, the team has not been able to carry over the consistently strong defense from the beginning of the season and finds itself in this must-win situation every game it heads into this week.
In Saturday’s game, the Tigers held the Green Wave to 32.7 percent shooting and just 8-for-30 shooting in the first half. They took a nine-point lead to the locker room and kept building from there. It was more a matter of time before Memphis started making its shots and pulled completely away.
Dedric Lawson scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds and Shaq Goodwin had 16 points for Memphis as the team began poring it on in the second half and enjoying themselves more and more.
This was a team playing with little pressure and nothing to lose and realizing all the potential it has had since the beginning of the season.
“I treat every game like one game and it’s over with,” Goodwin said. “Me and my brothers do the same. We talk to the mind coach. He talks to us about one play at a time, one shot at a time. Taking everything as one of a whole. When we win, we put it in the past and have to regroup because any game can be our last game. Moving forward, we have to win as much as possible.”
Yes, a mind coach. Pastner brought one in from the Memphis area to help the team be more present and strengthen their mental toughness for close games. Those results have been mixed some this year for sure.
The players seem to have renewed confidence though. A few rollicking wins can do that.
And it does not seem that the pressure of this moment and the stakes in Sunday’s game will phase them in the least. This is a team riding high and playing well, moving the ball with precision and finding open shots. The Tigers scored 38 points in the paint, had 31 points off turnovers, 23 second-chance points on 14 offensive rebounds and 17 assists on 25 made field goals.
This was a game of utter domination and Memphis was beating Tulane inside and out and getting the kind of shots it can be happy with all evening.
UConn will put up a much stiffer challenge, of course. The Huskies have been playing the best basketball of anyone in this tournament and are still squarely on the bubble too. They need the automatic berth as much as the Tigers do.
The game itself will be a battle of wills between UConn’s capable guards and Memphis’ strong bigs and energy.
It will, as Pastner put it, come down to who has the better players with each playing their third day straight.
“When you’re going back to back and now back to back to back, I don’t know how much it is going to come down to Xs and Os, really how much strategy you’re going to be able to do,” Pastner said. “It comes down to the Jimmys and Joes. We’re going to have to get it done on the court. And it’s going to come down to the players making plays.”
That is all a tournament can ask for in the end. And it got a final with two of the more talented, if not disappointing for the regular season, teams in the conference.
Memphis enjoyed its moment. But as Goodwin reminded his teammates as they shouted, “We’re going to the ‘ship!” No, Memphis is here to win the “‘ship” and head home with a tournament berth.
Whether they can stay present enough to do that comes Sunday.