After a slow start to the game, No. 20 Memphis came out firing in the second half and ended its senior day with a 67-58 win over No. 18 SMU.
Joe Jackson led the way for the Tigers with 18 points in the win, an impressive feat after scoring just three in the first half. He received plenty of help from Austin Nichols, who ended the day with 14 points and nine rebounds.
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports noted how well the team played overall in the second half:
That was maybe the best 20 minutes Memphis has played all season. Tigers outscore SMU 41-28 in second half to earn 67-58 win.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 8, 2014
Nic Moore led the way for the Mustangs with 16 points, but a sloppy game all around helped drop the team to 23-8 on the year. Of course, this is still far ahead of expectations after the school posted a 15-17 record last season.
These two teams were involved in a defensive struggle to start the game as both sides struggled to hit shots. SMU went up as many as seven points in the first half but Memphis was able to close the gap heading into halftime with the Mustangs leading 30-26.
The Tigers then came out firing after intermission with a 7-0 run off the bat. A trio of Chris Crawford three-point shots then helped them go up by 14 points with just over eight minutes left in the game.
Still, SMU hung around thanks to a bunch of fast-break points, drawing criticism from Dan Wolken of USA Today:
Memphis is playing a great half, but I simply do not understand how their transition defense is this bad.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 8, 2014
The lead dwindled down to six with under two minutes, but some key makes by Jackson allowed the home team to come away with a much-needed victory.
These two teams are virtual locks for the NCAA tournament after great seasons, but this matchup still had important seeding implications. Additionally, they were both looking for seeding in the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament, an event in which both sides will be considered top contenders.
SMU head coach Larry Brown believes his team can make a run in the NCAA tournament but admitted the players still have work to do, via Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports:
I think you could probably say that we have great depth, we play the right way, and we're capable of beating anybody. We still don't have the look in our eye yet and that doesn't happen overnight. We need to get to the point where we have the look in our eye that when we take the floor we know we're going to win. We're just not at that point yet.
After coming through with this big win, Memphis has to feel a bit more confident heading into the postseason than SMU, which now has lost two games in a row to end the regular season.
Still, there is enough talent on both of these rosters to believe that a run to the Sweet 16 or more is possible.
Joe Jackson, Memphis: A-
It takes a true leader to shake off a terrible first half to star after intermission. That is exactly what Jackson was able to do against SMU after scoring just three points on 1-of-7 shooting in the first half.
The senior guard finished with 18 points plus three assists, two steals and two rebounds in a strong all-around performance.
If Memphis wants to go deep in the NCAA tournament, it will need more efforts like this from its leading scorer.
Austin Nichols, Memphis: A
When Memphis was pulling away at the start of the second half, Nichols was front and center making plays all over the court.
The freshman forward had a slow start to the year, but he has now scored in double figures in six-straight games to help fuel the Tigers offense. Rob Dauster is one of many who have taken notice of this recent stretch:
Austin Nichols has been so good in recent weeks for Memphis.— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) March 8, 2014
Nichols not only scored 14, but he was efficient with his 7-of-9 shooting and nine rebounds as part of a strong day.
Nic Moore, SMU: A-
There were times in the second half where Moore seemed to be the only one playing for SMU. The team's leading scorer created plenty of scoring with his 16 points and seven assists on the day. His two steals showcased his activity on the defensive end as well.
Which team will go deeper in the NCAA tournament?
The sophomore guard sometimes struggles to create opportunities for others, but he did enough of that against Memphis to give his team a chance to win.
Unfortunately, the rest of the squad only hit 36.7 percent of its shots and simply could not keep up with the athleticism on the road in this matchup.
This was the last game of the regular season for both of these teams, who will now prepare for the AAC tournament in Memphis. The seeding is still to be determined, but both Memphis and SMU will get a bye to the second round which begins on March 13.
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