November 22, 2011
Just when it seemed Memphis had done everything in its power to try to hand Tennessee an improbable victory at the Maui Invitational on Tuesday, senior Wesley Witherspoon found an especially creative way to extend the drama a little longer.
All Witherspoon had to do to preserve a two-point lead was dribble out the clock after snatching a loose ball near the sideline with less than two seconds left in double overtime. Instead he started celebrating too early and traveled with the ball, enabling Tennessee one final chance to tie or win the game with .8 seconds left on the clock.
That Jeronne Maymon's buzzer beater from the elbow fell short and Memphis escaped with a 99-97 double-overtime victory surely inspired a few sighs of relief on the Tigers sideline. Memphis needed a win after getting embarrassed by Michigan the previous day, but better-than-advertised Tennessee proved to be a far bigger challenge than expected.
Maymon was the driving force behind Tennessee's comeback from a 16-point first-half deficit, scoring 32 points, pulling down 20 rebounds and helping foul out Memphis big men Stan Simpson and Tarik Black. The Vols also out-rebounded the Tigers 49-34, including 17-4 on the offensive glass, and benefited from a lane violation on Witherspoon and some crucial botched free throws and layups from Memphis late in regulation and during overtime.
What kept Memphis from suffering another defeat was an efficient offensive performance highlighted by the play of sophomores Will and Antonio Barton and promising freshman Adonis Thomas. The Barton brothers combined for 46 points including the game-winning jumper from Antonio with 1:16 left in double OT, while Thomas showed glimpses of why he was the state of Tennessee's best high school player last season with an efficient 19-point performance.
Whereas last year's freshman-laden Memphis team needed a late surge to make the NCAA tournament because its erratic, turnover-prone offense wasn't consistent enough, this year's Tigers appear to have the opposite problem so far. The Tigers have been efficient offensively, excluding their woeful shot selection against Michigan's array of zones Monday, but their defense has been surprisingly suspect.
The result has been an up-and-down start from a Tigers team whose top 10 preseason ranking was based on last year's freshmen class maturing as sophomores.
They displayed their potential in overwhelming Belmont with their athleticism last Tuesday. They displayed their youth in having no answer for Michigan's defensive looks in Monday's Maui opener. And they displayed a little of both in Tuesday's tougher-than-it-needed-to-be bounce-back win over the Vols.
The bottom line is that it's too soon to make any sweeping conclusions about how good Memphis is. The Tigers have the talent to be great but they still have a lot of problem areas to clean up first.
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