The buzz about the University of Memphis' debut in the inaugural American Athletic Conference was short-lived, with the debut degenerating into a cameo appearance.
In front of 13,801 fans at FedExForum on Thursday night, the Tigers (fifth-seeded) took a beating from the fourth-seeded University of Connecticut Huskies.
The final score was 72-53 and it didn't feel that close.
"Second season, conference tournament, we grade ourselves with an 'F'," head coach Josh Pastner said of the thorough drubbing.
For the Tigers, the night was an ugly combination of porous defense, an anemic offense and a painful inability to take care of the basketball. At the half, Memphis trailed by 14 (41-27). At that point, UConn's relatively unheralded Niels Giffey – no, not American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Shabazz Napier –led all scorers in the first half with 14 points.
By the break, UConn had racked 22 points off Memphis turnovers, along with 10 second-chance points. The Tigers had already rotated nine players, with guard Chris Crawford leading the team with six points.
After the half, the debacle continued, with the Huskies left wide open to make threes, twos, dunks, paint-points and, well, you get the point.
"I just did not see this coming," Pastner said. "I felt the first half, the majority of the game, but especially the first half, we played not to lose instead of playing to win. When you play not to lose against a really good team you end up losing. We played timid and, you know, just one of those things."
The Tigers seemed to give up winning early in the game.
Senior guard Geron Johnson said Pastner's game plan was made "up right" and that the team's senior guards were expected to hold themselves accountable for making shots.
"I'm very disappointed with myself, the way I played the first half," said Johnson, adding the description "lackadaisical" to his reflection.
The lackadaisical play turned the faithful fans away. They vacated the premises with seven minutes left on the clock. It wasn't the loss that was a turnoff for the fans. It was the lack of fight.
"We stunk, no other way to look at it," Pastner said. "We played poorly. Obviously when we lose a game all responsibility has to go to the head coach, so I will take full responsibility."
Crawford and senior guard Joe Jackson each pitched in 10, followed by Nick King with nine points.
The tournament game marked the third contest between the Tigers and Huskies this season. UConn won all three games, including two on Memphis' home court.
"I don't think it's the building," Huskies' star guard Napier said. "I think it's the way that Memphis plays defense. They definitely double a lot of pick-and-rolls, which leaves guys like Niels (Giffey) open and DeAndre (Daniels) and Lasan (Kromah) open and you got some good shooters."
Giffey finished the game with a career-high 24 points, including six three-pointers, and nine rebounds. Shabazz moved into sixth place on UConn's all-time scoring list and fourth for three-pointers made. The Huskies shot 50 percent from beyond the arc and scored 30 points in the paint compared to the Tigers' 18.
"We didn't want them to score in the paint as much as they have," Napier said. "We know Shaq Goodwin is definitely a great talent and we dug down a little bit. We wasn't doing anything different than we did the last few games with them..."
UConn advances to the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference Championship, where they will face No. 1 Cincinnati. That game is tonight at 8 p.m.
"The game was played at a high speed and I thought our guys came in with the right mind-set and that mind-set is togetherness," said UConn's head coach Kevin Ollie.
"We shared the basketball. We have to fuel back up and get ready for Cincinnati because you know what type of game that's going to be, it's going to be a war. We gotta have that heart, we gotta have that hustle. The same thing we had tonight to beat a great team like Cincinnati."
What's next for the Tigers?
"I told Coach, there is no sympathy, nobody is going to give us any sympathy, but we have to get to the drawing board and be ready for next week as we get into the NCAA Tournament," Johnson said.