MEMPHIS -- When No. 21 Memphis needed to fend off an upset bid by gritty Houston at FedExForum on Wednesday night, they bet on Black.
Junior forward Tarik Black, a starter throughout his college career until earlier this season, scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half to help the Tigers hold off the Cougars, 81-74, for a Conference USA victory before a crowd of 16,791.
"I just tried to be what we needed at the moment," said Black, who scored three straight power buckets in a 10-2 run that jump started the Tigers after Houston rallied from seven-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 41-41 in the first four minutes of the second half. "This team really needed me. The pace of the game had slowed down and we needed a spark."
Memphis (23-3 overall, 12-0 in C-USA), still had a few anxious moments down the stretch because of 19 turnovers that led to 26 Houston points. But in the end, the Tigers recorded their 17th straight victory, tying Akron for the longest win streak in the nation.
"Winning 17 in a row is not easy to do. We don't take it for granted," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "Winning 19 straight Conference USA games dating back to last year, we don't take it for granted. To win 21 of 22, you don't have a birthright to do that. We get everyone's best shot."
The Tigers certainly took some healthy jabs from the Cougars (15-10, 4-8). Memphis' largest first-half lead was 10 and largest in the second half was 15, but each time Houston rallied to keep the home team's eyes open until the final buzzer.
"When it got close in the second half," Houston coach James Dickey said, "Memphis jammed it inside to Tarik Black. We didn't have an answer for him. And we were too careless with the ball in the first half. You can't do that in a conference game on the road."
Because Memphis didn't have a sterling outside shooting night, making just 3 of 14 3s, the Tigers went to their strengths inside.
Black, Adonis Thomas and D.J. Stephens combined for 51 points on 21 of 33 field goals and grabbed 21 rebounds.
Thomas, a heavily recruited blue chipper who sat out most of last year with an injury and who has struggled to find his role for most of this season, had 22 points and eight rebounds. It was his fifth straight game scoring in double figures.
About the only thing he apparently did wrong was prevent Chris Crawford from recording a triple-double. But Thomas was only following what Pastner had coached.
Not knowing that Crawford needed an assist for the triple double -- he had 11 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists -- Thomas dribbled out the final seconds despite his teammates screaming for him score on an easy layup.
"I didn't know Chris needed an assist and I apologized to him," Thomas said. "I just did what coach always taught us, which is to respect the other team in a situation like that."
Houston fought until the end, cutting the Tigers' lead to 75-68 with 55.7 seconds left on a TaShawn Thomas dunk, the last of his 20 points. Joseph Young led the Cougars with 20.
Memphis had a double-digit lead with 8:29 left in the first half, but never could take it any higher. The energy that the Tigers brought in the game's opening 10 minutes when they dunked five times (four off lobs) seemed to fade though Pastner did his best to keep fresh bodies on the floor.
What worked best for the Tigers early was snappy ball movement, with Thomas the beneficiary. Continuing his fine play of late, he had 12 points and four rebounds in the opening half.
Houston managed to stay within striking distance through the first 20 minutes, because of Thomas, who was named C-USA Player of the Week after averaging 21 points and 9.6 rebounds last week. He had eight points and four rebounds.
It also didn't help Memphis that it had more turnovers (10-9) than Houston, a problem the Tigers couldn't solve all game.
Paster was aggravated by the high number of turnovers, but he could live with it, because the Tigers outscored Houston 46-30 in the paint and 18-6 in second-chance points.
Memphis had a dominant 40-25 rebounding advantage.
"We were sloppy and we can't shoot 3 of 14 from 3 again," said Pastner, whose team can clinch the C-USA regular season title Saturday when they play Southern Miss. "Southern Miss is an NCAA Tournament team with lots of good players."