Exhale, bubble teams everywhere. Conference USA will not produce a bid thief.
Memphis had to survive a rally-fueling flagrant foul, a game-tying buzzer beater and two hard-fought overtime periods, but the top-seeded Tigers managed to thwart a spirited upset bid from second-seeded Southern Miss. The 91-79 Memphis victory makes the Tigers Conference USA tournament champions for the third straight season and likely ensures that Conference USA will only receive one NCAA tournament bid Sunday.
The only way that changes is if the selection committee decides Southern Miss has done enough this season to earn an unlikely at-large bid.
The Golden Eagles (25-9, 12-4) have an impressive won-loss record and a surprisingly solid top 40 RPI, but under closer examination, their profile simply doesn't hold up. Not only did they lose to Memphis all three times they faced the Tigers, they failed to notch a single RPI top 50 win and the best teams they beat all season were Denver, UTEP and Central Florida.
It looked like Southern Miss might get the breakthrough win it needed Saturday when it rallied from a seven-point deficit in the final minute to force overtime with the help of a pair of key missed free throws from Geron Johnson and Joe Jackson. Guard Neil Watson capped the comeback with a coast-to-coast layup that barely was out of his hands as time expired.
The Golden Eagles led late in the first overtime, but a Jackson jump shot with 12 seconds left forced the second extra period. It was then that Memphis finally buried them, Jackson delivering the death blow with a steal and dunk that extended the lead to seven with less than a minute to play.
Where to seed Memphis will be one of the more difficult decisions the selection committee faces this weekend.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner argued after the game that the Tigers should be a No. 4 or 5 seed, but they don't have the profile to support that despite 30 wins and an undefeated record in Conference USA. The only victories of note Memphis has are wins over fellow bubble team Tennessee and the three times they beat Southern Miss.
More likely, Memphis will try to earn Pastner his first NCAA tournament victory in four seasons from about a No. 7 seed. Whether the Tigers do it or not, they've gained the gratitude of bubble teams everywhere for keeping Southern Miss out of the tournament and opening a spot for someone else.
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