R-o-l-l-e-r ... c-o-a-s-t-e-r!
That's the only way to describe the University of Memphis Tigers' basketball season thus far. Up and down and up and down.
A crushing defeat early to Oklahoma State followed by a redeeming win over the same OSU team to capture the Old Spice Classic. A dominant road victory over the University of Southern Florida in Memphis' conference opener overshadowed by an embarrassing home loss to Cincinnati less than a week later.
Headed into their game Thursday night (Jan. 9) at Louisville, many thought the roller coaster might be headed for its biggest drop this year. Memphis hadn't beaten a ranked conference opponent on the road since 2005. With the defending national champion Louisville sitting at No. 12, it looked as if that trend might continue.
Yet, rivalry games often bring the best out of the "underdogs" (10.5 points according to Vegas). And the Tigers, who were 33-4 under coach Josh Pastner after a loss, definitely came to play.
Chris Crawford shot well in the first half going 3-3 (2-2 from three), but still the Memphis shooting as a whole wasn't anything special. That was highlighted by a 1-7 effort by Geron Johnson during the first 20 minutes.
It appeared the Louisville game plan was to let struggling Memphis shooters have a little room and almost dare them to fire away. Nonetheless, the Tigers were able to out-rebound the Cardinals in the first half and lead 36-33 at the break.
Freshman forward Austin Nichols has been losing minutes the past few games to transfer David Pellom. However, Louisville's lack of bruising big men allowed Nichols to play 32 quality minutes and record 10 points and 7 rebounds.
And although Johnson didn't play well in the first half, he would finish with a double-double (13 points and 11 rebounds) and make 6-7 of his free throws. Johnson was also involved in a fast-break dunk, on which he drew an and-1, that proved to be the turning point in the game after Louisville had mounted a 6-point lead in the final minutes.
In front a shocked crowd at the KFC Yum! Center, Shaq Goodwin would throw down an emphatic dunk as the time expired for a 73-67 win for the Tigers.
After the game, coach Pastner tried to downplay the win by comparing it to a road win over Tennessee last year.
No one was fooled.
This is clearly the best road win in Pastner's career at Memphis and quite possibly his biggest win overall during his tenure.
The Tigers played well as a team, with all five starters scoring in the double digits for the first time this year. Which is a very encouraging sign for the True Blue fans going forward, but most of all, they love a win over a long-time rival. Even though the Tigers weren't favored to win the game, the Memphis airwaves would have undoubtedly been rife with criticisms if the Tigers had lost their second game in a row for the first time since November 2012.
Next up, the Tigers travel to Pennsylvania to continue their conference crusade against the Temple Owls on Saturday (Jan. 11). The game will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 2 pm.