Antonio Barton saved Memphis from a major scare earlier than expected against an in-state rival. Now, the freshman guard and the young Tigers will try to make things much easier on themselves by taking advantage of spiraling Tennessee.
No. 21 Memphis attempts to sweep a three-game stretch against in-state foes when it faces the Volunteers in its first road game of the season Wednesday night.
The Tigers (11-2) avoided a major upset Sunday, edging Tennessee State 91-86. Barton made the difference, scoring 20 of his season-high 24 points in the second half and hitting two free throws with 17 seconds left.
“Antonio Barton saved us,” coach Josh Pastner said. “What other way can you say it? He actually saved us. He was 5 of 6 from (3-point range) and hit big free throws down the stretch.”
The victory followed Thursday’s 88-70 rout of Lipscomb, which opened this stretch against fellow Tennessee teams.
While a close game against Tennessee State may not have been expected, Memphis would certainly seem prepared for that against the Volunteers (9-4). However, Tennessee has dropped four of six to tumble out of the rankings after climbing as high as No. 7 following wins over then-No. 3 Pittsburgh and seventh-ranked Villanova.
The Vols’ poor stretch continued with a 91-78 home defeat to the College of Charleston on Friday, and coach Bruce Pearl knows things won’t be any easier against Memphis.
“They’re good. They’re quick. They get to the rim very well,” Pearl said of the Tigers. “Some of the things they do very well are things we struggle with, but I think we can fix it.”
The Tigers won 54-52 in their last visit to Thompson-Boling Arena on Jan. 24, 2009, but fell 66-59 at home to then-No. 14 Tennessee last season on Dec. 31, losing for the eighth time in the last 11 matchups.
Memphis is 8-13 in the all-time series, but an abundance of youth could make a difference in Knoxville.
Of the Tigers’ top seven scorers, five are freshmen with Will Barton leading the way at 12.8 points per game - 17.3 over the last three games. The guard scored 19 points against Tennessee State.
His brother Antonio Barton is providing a major threat off the bench. He’s made 10 of 15 shots, including 8 of 11 from beyond the arc, while totaling 36 points over the last two games.
Wesley Witherspoon, second on the team with 12.5 points per game, is looking for an improved performance. The junior swingman, who missed two games following knee surgery Dec. 10, scored three points in 22 minutes Sunday after getting a season-high 28 on 10-for-14 shooting against the Bisons.
Memphis is shooting 53.6 percent over the last two games, but Pastner wants to see better defensive play. The Tigers have allowed their last three opponents to shoot a combined 50.9 percent, while Tennessee State made 12 of 24 3-pointers.
“We have to lock down on defense,” Pastner said.
The Volunteers could be in for some changes as Pearl puts an onus on defense after their worst performance of the season. They allowed season highs in scoring, shooting percentage (57.1) and 3-point shooting (56.0 percent) against the Cougars.
“The decisions as far as personnel are concerned moving forward will come down to the guys who can defend and move their feet will play,” said Pearl, who will coach his final game before beginning an eight-game suspension in SEC play for lying to NCAA investigators.
“The guys who can’t, won’t,” he added. “We’ll shorten the rotation and make some tough decisions. It will simply come down to guys who can defend and rebound.”
Scotty Hopson isn’t likely to fade from Tennessee’s rotation. The junior leads the team with 16.4 points per game, and is averaging 20.0 over the last three. He had 24 Sunday, but has totaled nine points on 3-for-17 shooting in two meetings with Memphis.