Memphis’ Wesley Witherspoon’s quick return from knee surgery surprised many. How soon he regained his shooting touch may be even worse news for the rest of Conference USA.
The 21st-ranked Tigers play the first of two in-state rivals before beginning conference play next weekend when they host Tennessee State on Sunday.
Memphis (10-2) bounced back from an ugly 86-69 home loss to Georgetown before Christmas with an 88-70 win over Lipscomb on Thursday in which it went 11 of 22 from 3-point range and outrebounded the Bison 42-23.
Witherspoon, playing his second game following knee surgery in early December, scored a season-high 28 points - one shy of matching his personal best - while adding a career-high 14 rebounds, including six offensive boards. He shot 10 of 14 from the field, made four 3-pointers and had three steals and three blocked shots.
Witherspoon said he felt more confident than in his first game back. In 19 minutes against the Hoyas, the 6-foot-9 junior finished with three points on 1-of-5 shooting.
“The MRI during the week gave me peace of mind,” said Witherspoon, who is averaging 13.5 points and 5.4 rebounds. “Even after the Georgetown game, I was still thinking about it. I had just psyched myself out. You can’t play if your mind isn’t in the game. The mental aspect of it was making it hurt a little bit more than it really was.”
Witherspoon, who missed only two games following the surgery, scored 19 points in the first half, helping Memphis take a 42-32 lead into the break.
It was the first easy victory for the Tigers in several weeks after they shot 39.1 percent over the previous four games. Their two wins during that stretch were by a combined seven points, including an overtime victory over Austin Peay on Dec. 16.
Memphis trailed at the end of the first half of its previous two games.
“I feel like this team had a chance to be a better shooting team than we were last year,” coach Josh Pastner said. “We hadn’t show that this year, but that was because we were trying to do everything on the first side. We want to do stuff on the second, third or fourth side and increase our offensive efficiency.”
This is the first time in 21 years Memphis is facing Tennessee State (6-7), which had its five-game winning streak snapped with a 65-58 loss at Middle Tennessee on Wednesday.
Patrick Miller scored 16 points and Jacquan Nobles added 12 in the team’s second-lowest scoring game of the season.
Kenny Moore leads the Tigers with 13.7 points per game, but he’s scored a combined 12 the last two games, including three against Middle Tennessee on 1-of-4 shooting. He is one of two upperclassmen that Tennessee State starts.
Tennessee State is 0-14 against teams currently part of Conference USA, including seven losses to Memphis, which won 99-74 on Nov. 24, 1989, in the most recent meeting.