MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)—At times during his years at Memphis, senior forward Wesley Witherspoon has disappeared—either not playing up to his potential or struggling through injuries.
Witherspoon showed up against Belmont on Tuesday, hitting all eight of his shots and scoring 22 points to help lead the No. 10 Tigers to a 97-81 win.
“He was an elite-level player today,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.”
Will Barton scored 23 points to lead Memphis (1-0), and Joe Jackson added 20 points and seven assists. Freshman Adonis Thomas scored 12 for the Tigers, who shot 59 percent, including 7 of 14 from 3-point range. Three of those long-range shots came from Witherspoon.
“I was talking to (Memphis assistant coach Luke Walton) before the game,” said Witherspoon, who was hampered by knee problems last year. “He told me to just go out and play basketball. I’ve been playing in practice. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this healthy, and just be able to go out there and perform like I know I can perform.”
J.J. Mann scored 18 points and Ian Clark had 16 for Belmont, which was coming off a 77-76 loss at No. 6 Duke last Friday. Kerron Johnson chipped in 13 points and Mick Hedgepeth had 10.
Johnson and Hedgepeth each had eight rebounds to help the Bruins (0-2) outrebound Memphis 42-29.
“I hope we’ve learned that we can be a really good team,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said of the two-game stretch against top-10 teams. “Today’s margin is more than we’d like. I don’t think it is totally reflective of the game, but give them credit.
“I don’t know if we can beat them if they are going to make the shots they made against us, but they don’t always do that. If we’re going to beat a team like that, we’ve got to have a game where Witherspoon doesn’t make 3 for 3 (from long range) in the first half.”
Belmont was limited to 39 percent shooting and committed 18 turnovers to nine for Memphis.
The Bruins, generally a strong 3-point shooting team, managed only 6 of 20 from beyond the arc. Belmont started the game missing its first eight shots.
“I was stubborn about continuing to throw the ball down inside,” Byrd said of the start. “Their length and strength just made it hard for our five men to score it in there. Later on, we opened the floor a little bit more and got better looks because we were driving it and kicking it.”
Memphis held a 12-point lead in the first half before taking a 46-39 advantage into the break. Witherspoon carried the Tigers with 16 points in the first half on 6 for 6 shooting, including three 3-pointers.
After the 0-for-8 start, Belmont shot 36 percent for the half, while Memphis was at 56 percent. Mann connected on a 3-pointer to open the second half, then Memphis went on a 13-2 run for a 59-44 lead.
Memphis would extend the lead to 18 by hitting 10 of its first 14 shots after the break, but as they did against Duke, the Bruins wouldn’t surrender, scoring 10 straight points after the midway point of the second half.
That brought Belmont to 73-66 with 8:16 left. The Bruins could get no closer as Memphis finished with a 9-2 burst.
For the Tigers, it was the end of a long offseason wait. Most players said they were glad to finally play a regular season game, and they had been focused on Belmont all summer. Pastner said he obsessed about it on a family trip to the Bahamas.
“It gave us a legit team that we played to give us a barometer of where we are at,” Pastner said. “Things we’ve done well, and things we need to get better at.”
Barton said it was important to beat a team that has a recent history of strong seasons and postseason play. He also wondered if it would help others respect the Tigers’ talent.
“We feel disrespected. We really do,” Barton said. “People are saying we’re the most overrated top-10 team in the country. We don’t like that. We’re just focused.
“We’re not cocky or nothing like that. We just want to prove we’re one of the best teams in the country, too.”