NCAA News Wire

Seniors lead Memphis past SMU

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It was Senior Day for No. 20 Memphis on Saturday at FedExForum, but a rocky first half made the Tigers’ four senior guards look like nervous freshmen.

Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon went a combined three for 17 in the first half and the Tigers were fortunate to only be trailing No. 18 SMU by four at halftime.

In the second half, however, the guards were a combined 12 for 22 and lifted Memphis to a 67-58 victory over the Mustangs in the American Athletic Conference finale for both teams.

They finished with 40 points, 13 of the Tigers’ 16 assists and made eight steals.

“Those senior guards willed us to a win,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said.

It was a pair of freshmen, however, that kept Memphis close in the first half. Forward Austin Nichols had six points and six rebounds in the first half and finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Forward Nick King came off the bench in the first half to provide seven points and six rebounds (he finished with seven and seven).

“It was a perfect scenario,” Nichols said. “Something in the back of my mind was telling me (the four guards) would pick it up.”

Memphis (23-8, 12-6 AAC) used a 20-5 run to go from trailing by a point to taking a 58-44 lead with nine minutes to play. Crawford (nine points, three assists and four steals) made three consecutive 3-pointers during the run. He had missed five straight before that.

“I started very poorly,” Crawford said. “I saw one go in and the next two I got a little confidence.”

SMU (23-8, 12-6) cut the lead to six, at 64-58, with 1:43 remaining on a short jumper in the lane from forward Markus Kennedy (13 points). But Jackson (game-high 18 points with three assists and two steals) answered with a driving layup in traffic and a made free throw at 1:30 for a three-point play and a 67-58 lead, ending SMU’s last threat.

“We have a hard time when adversity hits,” SMU coach Larry Brown said. “I have a freshman who’s 6-8 (Ben Moore); he makes a couple of mistakes and he walks back to the bench and he’s 5-9.”

The Tigers outshot SMU 46.4 percent to 40 percent and outrebounded the Mustangs 38-33.

The final seeding for the AAC Tournament, which begins Wednesday at FedExForum, will not be known until the completion of other conference games but it is possible Memphis and SMU could meet in a No. 4 vs. No. 5 game in Thursday’s quarterfinals; Memphis is locked in the No. 5 slot.

After having won three straight, the Mustangs ended the regular season with losses to No. 11 Louisville and Memphis.

“Two ranked teams,” Brown said. “Two programs I admire.”

Guard Nic Moore paced the Mustangs with 16 points, seven assists and two steals. Guard Nick Russell finished with 13 points.

SMU led 30-26 at halftime and held the Tigers to 34.5 percent shooting. Memphis missed all six 3-pointers it attempted and also struggled at the free-throw line, going six for 13 (46.2 percent).

But Nichols blocked center Cannen Cunningham’s shot just 12 seconds into the second half and made a layup at the other end to immediately re-energize the crowd.

“We started the half off with a terrible shot … then we came back and turned it over quick, which set the tone,” Brown said. “We’ve competed at a high level and then all of a sudden stuff happens and we haven’t taken that next step to handle it. It’s being young and not being used to winning.”

Memphis and Louisville, which will be either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, are the only AAC teams that have not lost back-to-back games all season.

“This is a big-boy league,” Pastner said. “The best in the country.”

NOTES: Saturday was Senior Day at Memphis with five scholarship players being honored: G Joe Jackson and G Chris Crawford, who played four years for the Tigers; Guard Geron Johnson, who played two years; G Michael Dixon, who played one year after transferring from Missouri; and F David Pellom, who played one year