After closing the regular season in less than stellar fashion, Memphis quickly reminded everyone why it was the best team in Conference USA play this season.
After an easy quarterfinal win, the fifth-ranked Tigers (28-3) host Houston in one semifinal Friday. The winner faces UAB or UTEP for the championship Saturday at the FedExForum.
The top-seeded Tigers blew out Tulane 75-56 on Wednesday. Memphis stormed out to a 47-19 halftime lead and finished with 11 3-pointers.
“The thing I’m most pleased with was I thought you saw an intensity level and an effort level that we haven’t had for a couple of weeks,” Memphis coach John Calipari said. “Second of all, there were things we prepared to do, and we executed them. … It was some good stuff.”
Rodney Carney scored 18 points, Darius Washington had 15 and Shawne Williams added 13 for the Tigers, who led by as many as 37 points.
“I really wanted to come out with great energy on the defensive end,” said Carney, who needs 14 points to move into fifth place on the C-USA scoring list. “Defense starts everything. It led to some free throws, a couple of run-throughs and a couple of dunks.”
Memphis had nine steals and forced 20 turnovers in the rout. The Tigers need three steals to set a school record for most in a season. The 1986-87 team had 315.
The strong defensive performance helped Memphis erase some doubts that had crept up in the last few weeks. Leading up to the tournament, the Tigers were tested by Houston and Tulsa, and fell to UAB in their only defeat in the last 18 games.
Calipari urged his three stars to take over, and that’s what Carney, Washington and Williams were able to do.
“When you win, this is what happens. Everyone kind of shines a little bit,” Calipari said. “These guys are doing a pretty good job of performing at a high level.
“I thought they played loose. I thought they just came out and played.”
Memphis lost guard Chris Douglas-Roberts just one minute into the game with a sprained right knee. MRI results were negative, but the freshman’s status for this contest is questionable.
Douglas-Roberts has started 24 games and averaged 8.8 points in his first season with the Tigers.
Fourth-seeded Houston (20-8) advanced to the semifinals with a 71-52 win over Central Florida on Thursday night. Oliver Lafayette had five 3-pointers and 19 points as the Cougars led by as many as 21 points after halftime.
The victory clinched Houston’s first 20-win season since 1992-93, when the Cougars went 21-9.
Memphis has won four of the last five against Houston, including a 69-62 victory in its regular season finale last Saturday that clinched the conference title.
Houston won the only meeting between the teams in the C-USA tournament, a quarterfinal win in 2002.