After a long stretch of games that were rarely competitive, Memphis has had some close calls lately.
With more certainly on the way as March approaches, the 21st-ranked Tigers are happy to have Austin Nichols playing like the star they thought he'd be.
Coming off perhaps the best performance of his freshman season in another tight victory, Nichols and Memphis will try to avoid looking past Thursday night's road game against a Houston team they dismantled a month ago.
The Tigers (21-6, 10-4 AAC) won 73-67 at then-No. 12 Louisville on Jan. 9, then went through a stretch of eight games that were all decided by double digits.
Nothing has come easy in the past three weeks, though, as all five of Memphis' games have been decided by six points or fewer. Two of those have gone an extra five minutes, with Saturday's 82-79 overtime win over AAC bottom-feeder Temple being the Tigers' fourth victory in that stretch.
"Hey, win 21, and there's no such thing as a bad win," coach Josh Pastner said.
Shaq Goodwin led the way with 20 points, but the most significant development going forward may have been the performance of his fellow frontcourt starter. Nichols had 17 points, a season-high 12 rebounds and seven blocks, a breakthrough effort for a player who was a consensus five-star recruit but has rarely been dominant after some early season signs.
"He was terrific. He made some big plays," Pastner said. "He had tough, hard-nosed rebounds. He was a very, very high-level guy. We're just a really, really good team when he can play like that."
Nichols only had four points against the Cougars (13-14, 5-9) on Jan. 23, but Goodwin (20) and Joe Jackson (18) led the way in an 82-59 rout as Memphis shot 58.9 percent.
That was the Tigers' fourth straight win in this series, and now they may have to avoid overlooking a Houston team that's dropped nine of 12. A rematch with Louisville awaits Memphis on Saturday, followed by games against Cincinnati and SMU - both of which already beat the Tigers.
Despite closing the regular season against the three AAC teams above it, Memphis insists its focus is on the Cougars.
"We're treating this like our own little championship series, like Final Four, Elite Eight, whatever, so we're taking each game as the most important game," Goodwin said. "So the next game is Houston and we're looking forward to that one."
The Cougars have put on impressive shooting displays in winning their last two home games around competitive losses at Cincinnati and SMU. Houston knocked down 11 of 24 3-pointers in an 88-74 win over Temple on Feb. 9, then shot 58.3 percent overall - 10 of 16 from beyond the arc - in beating UCF 88-84 on Saturday.
Danuel House led the way with 18 points, hitting all eight of his free throws as the Cougars got to the line a season-high 32 times.
Leading scorer TaShawn Thomas (15.7 points per game) was held to 11 but tied a season high with five assists.
"We were like, 'just let the game come to you, TaShawn,'" guard Jherrod Stiggers said. "'When you get doubles, look out and you got numbers.'"
With the two recent home wins and solid showings against the Bearcats and Mustangs in mind, Houston is looking forward to a second shot at Memphis.
"We're excited because they're a good team," forward J.J. Richardson said. "We are strongly confident in ourselves. We basically just have to put our boots and hard hats on and just play."
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