Both No. 21 Memphis and No. 7 Louisville showed why they will be contenders in the NCAA tournament later this month, with a back-and-forth struggle that pitted the star power of Louisville against the depth of Memphis' roster.
(7) Louisville at (21) Memphis at 2 ET. Louisville is 1-4 vs ranked teams this year (23-0 vs unranked teams).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 1, 2014
Memphis pulled away in the first half, outscoring Louisville, 37-31. However, the resurgent Cardinals got right back in it early in the second half in a game that would conclude with a dramatic finish.
First-round draft prospect Montrezl Harrell put Louisville on his shoulders, as he was seemingly unstoppable throughout the second half. However, Memphis, led by a great performance off the bench by Michael Dixon Jr., proved to be too much to handle and emerged victorious, 72-66.
This marked a season sweep for Memphis over its conference rival, which served as quite the accomplishment, per Dan Wolken of USA Today:
Memphis has had a weird season, missed a lot of opportunities, but sweeping Louisville is a big feather in their cap.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 1, 2014
With Memphis up by three in the final minute of the game, both teams had difficulty finding points. Louisville was put between a rock and a hard place, as the team's most reliable three-point shooter, Russ Smith, fouled out with 21 seconds left.
Louisville missed its last eight shots, Memphis went on a 15-1 run to finish the game.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 1, 2014
Louisville, unable to connect on a late bucket, was forced to foul. After two successful free throws from Memphis, the game was officially out of hand.
Despite 44 combined points from Harrell and Smith, Memphis proved to be too tough.
It was Memphis' depth that earned the victory, as four different players finished the game with double-digit points. Shooting 49 percent from the field as a team—including connecting on six of nine three-point attempts—was the difference in such a close contest.
I knew we were in trouble when we went up seven, and our guys acted like junior high kids. I knew they weren't focused to put the team away. That was very disappointing for a defending national champion to act like they just won the game being only up seven points on the road. That was very disappointing that our guys lost focus like that.
On the other hand, Memphis head coach Josh Pastner was elated with his players after his biggest win with the team. Said Pastner, "That's a big-time win. So great a bounce back for the guys. That's not easy to do after a tough loss on Thursday but to bounce back like that today just so proud of our young men."
Here's how the overall team statistics played out:
Clearly, this wasn't a game dominated by either side.
Let's take a look at some of the top performers from Saturday's contest for each team.
Montrezl Harrell, F, Louisville
Harrell was fantastic during this contest. He connected on 11 of his 17 attempts from the floor, accruing a game-high 25 points. He also added 12 rebounds to earn a double-double. He continues to solidify his status as a future first-round draft selection.
Russ Smith, G, Louisville
Smith added an extra dimension to Louisville's offense. He is a well-rounded player and proved it on Saturday while accumulating 19 points, five rebounds and five assists. Unfortunately, he got into foul trouble and left the game in the waning seconds.
Smith learned from the mistakes the team made on Saturday and elaborated on them during his postgame press conference with ESPN. Said Smith, "We probably should have been more focused on the last few minutes of the game instead of celebrating. That happens. That's something we'll just learn from."
Luke Hancock, F, Louisville
Hancock came away with 11 points; however, he was not on point from the field, connecting on just four of 11 attempts and coming away with one rebound. The Cardinals will need better performances from him going forward.
Michael Dixon Jr., G, Memphis
Dixon was really on point coming in off the bench. He connected on four of five attempts from the field for a team-high 18 points and made all nine of his free-throw attempts. His performance was one of the major factors in a big win for Memphis.
Geron Johnson, G, Memphis
Johnson was another factor in Memphis' solid shooting performance. He connected on six of seven attempts from the field for 15 total points. He was also active with four rebounds, three assists and two steals. He does need to cut down on turnovers going forward, as he had six in the game.
Austin Nichols, F, Memphis
Nichols has been solid all year, and he was at it again on Saturday. He made six of nine attempts from the field for 14 points and added five rebounds, three assists and two blocks against a very talented Louisville team.
Going forward, Louisville will look to bounce back on Wednesday against another ranked opponent. This time the Cardinals will face off with No. 23 Southern Methodist. SMU has been on a bit of a hot streak lately, and Louisville will need more than just Harrell to right the ship and emerge victorious.
Memphis, however, will have a rougher road. The Tigers will have to collect themselves after such a big win, as they are set to take on two ranked opponents over their final two games. First, they travel to meet No. 11 Cincinnati on Thursday. Then Memphis will finish off its season at home against No. 23 SMU.
Wins at this juncture are very important for both teams as they look to head into the NCAA tournament with a head of steam.