MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)—Memphis coach John Calipari wasn’t focused on his team winning its second straight Conference USA title. It’s just a minor step in the big picture for the No. 7 Tigers.
“I don’t even know if we addressed it,” Calipari said after the Tigers beat Rice 99-63 to clinch the title. “So, we did win it outright? Huh. Congratulations.”
Willie Kemp scored 20 points to lead Memphis to its 16th straight win— the longest in the nation. Memphis (24-3, 13-0 C-USA) also has won 28 straight at home.
The back-to-back titles marked the first time in school history that Memphis has won consecutive outright crowns. But the championship was not even mentioned unless someone asked about it. For Memphis, the victories all are about building to the post season and a better seed.
“We’re excited,” said a reserved Antonio Anderson. “But deep down inside, we’ve got so much more going on right now. Hopefully, we can celebrate in April.”
It was the third straight loss for the Owls (13-13, 7-6).
“A couple of times we missed out on assignments,” Rice coach Willis Wilson said. “We felt like there were a couple of (Memphis) guys that we needed to get to, and we didn’t get to them. They knocked some shots down and took the wind out of our sails.”
Memphis, which started the game 0-for-7 from 3-point range, ended up shooting 47 percent from outside the arc. Kemp hit four of his six 3-pointers.
Jeremy Hunt finished with 16 points for Memphis, while Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts added 14 each.
Anderson, who had six assists, also covered Rice guard Morris Almond, the conference’s leading scorer, and third-best in the nation.
He is averaging 27.2 points, but was held to just 15. Almond was 5-for-14 from the field and grabbed 10 rebounds, but also had six turnovers. Cory Pflieger scored 10 for the Owls.
“I just tried to deny him as much as I could,” Anderson said of guarding Almond. “They set a lot of picks for him, and he can post up, and he’s really versatile.
“Being a defensive player, that’s pride. This is what you build yourself on. I don’t want to let him go out and destroy me and then my team lose.”
Calipari said despite his team’s dominance, he’s forcing them to concentrate on their play instead of worrying about their opponents. He said in facing Almond, he told the Tigers to concentrate as if it were a more important game in a postseason run.
“We played this game as if it was a game in March and we’re playing against (Texas freshman Kevin) Durant,” Calipari said. “How are we going to play him? We were going to make sure it was going to be hard for (Almond). Maybe he gets 30 anyway. But we were going to make it hard on him.”
The Tigers carried a 52-34 lead at the half after Hunt came off the bench to pull them out of an offensive funk with 12 first-half points, all of his field goals coming from 3-point range. Anderson added 11 points, while Douglas-Roberts scored 10.
Memphis struggled early when Rice went to a zone. The Tigers misfired from outside the defense, missing their first seven 3-pointers.
That allowed Rice to put together a 14-2 run, erasing an early 9-0 Memphis lead.
With Almond on the bench with Rice holding a 19-16 lead. Memphis went on a run hitting eight 3-pointers and building the lead to 21.
“We shot the ball well,” Calipari said. “They were open 3s though. I think there are going to be games where people are going to have to make a choice and hope we’re not making them.”
Memphis continued to maintain the lead in the second half as Kemp was the one who started connecting from 3-point range, assuring Memphis of repeating as the outright C-USA regular season champions.
And the accomplishment is somewhat blase to the Tigers.
“That’s not why we’re playing,” Calipari said. “It’s not, and the league tournament is not why we’re playing. That stuff is all part of the bigger picture.”