Memphis talking national title after earning 15th straight win

Bucky Dent, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

MEMPHIS -- There are always high expectations for Memphis, expectations it couldn't quite meet when it lost in sloppy fashion to VCU, Minnesota and Louisville in the first nine games.
But the Tigers have gotten straightened out since then. After dominating another outmatched Conference USA opponent Wednesday night, they're talking national championship.
Scoring 30 points off turnovers and recording 27 fast-break points, No. 22 Memphis blew away Central Florida in the second half for a 93-71 Conference USA rout at FedEx Forum.
Joe Jackson's 21 points led five players in double figures for the Tigers (21-3, 10-0), which made 59 percent of their field-goal attempts and drew assists off 28 of their 38 buckets. Geron Johnson added 19, Adonis Thomas contributed 17 points, and D.J. Stephens and Chris Crawford each netted 10.
"We're capable of winning the national championship," Thomas said. "When we look at one game at a time and make stops, we're capable of beating anybody."
It was the 15th straight win for the Tigers, who haven't lost since an 87-78 setback against Louisville on Dec. 15. They started the season ranked No. 17, but fell out of the Top 25 after going 1-2 at the Battle at Atlantis.
While Memphis' schedule since then hasn't been taxing -- it will likely be Conference USA's only NCAA Tournament entrant if it wins next month's conference tourney -- the Tigers are showing signs of peaking at the right time.
"The biggest thing is we continue to play at a high level," Tigers coach Josh Pastner said. "We're building something good with this team and we continue to build on it. The guys have really bonded."
Isaiah Sykes tallied 17 points but also had nine turnovers for the Knights (17-7, 7-3). Daiquan Walker scored 14, Tristan Spurlock added 11 and Keith Clanton, the preseason conference Player of the Year, was held to 10 points -- six under his average.
Memphis led by just six points at the half, but did what it wanted in the second half, building its lead to as large as 34 points in the final three minutes.
"I was happy where we were at halftime," UCF coach Donnie Jones said. "Then they capitalized on our mistakes and missed shots. Our backcourt turned it over too much, simple as that."
The game quickly boiled down to a simple plot. When Central Florida limited live-ball turnovers and was able to set up its 3-2 zone defense, it competed quite well. When Memphis knocked the ball loose and got its fast break in high gear, it dominated.
The Knights led 12-8 less than seven minutes into the first half before the Tigers scored on six straight possessions to take a five-point lead. UCF responded with an 8-2 spurt, regaining a 22-21 edge on Sykes' shot-clock beating 3-pointer.
But Memphis took control in the half's last four minutes, scoring on seven of its final eight possessions -- all the buckets were dunks or layups -- to establish a 42-36 edge at intermission.
That was merely a prelude to the second half, when the Tigers ripped and ran time after time. They scored on six of their first seven trips, then landed the knockout punch as Crawford sank back-to-back 3s, followed by a Johnson 3 for a 67-49 lead with 11:51 remaining.
Jackson, Johnson and Crawford not only combined for 50 points, but teamed to dish out 22 assists, with Jackson handing out a game-high 10.
"If you just give the guys the ball in certain places, they will score," Jackson said.
"When you bring a player like Crawford off the bench," Jones said, "you know you have a lot of weapons. They are really deep."
All that's left for Memphis is to make the kind of NCAA run that has eluded it since Pastner took over for John Calipari before the 2009-10 season. The Tigers have one NCAA win in three years, going one-and-done last March against Saint Louis.
"It's not a birthright to be the only undefeated team in the nation in true road games or win 15 games in a row," Pastner said. "This is a really good league. We're everyone's Super Bowl, World Series and NBA Finals. We get everyone's best shot."
NOTES: Memphis guard Antonio Barton missed his first game since breaking his right foot in the Tigers' 89-76 win Saturday at Southern Mississippi. Barton, who's averaging 6.2 points, will sit out four to six weeks. ... Memphis and Central Florida are departing Conference USA after the school year, but they will maintain their rivalry, as they are ticketed for the Big East Conference. ... The Knights are the only C-USA squad to own two wins over teams ranked in the RPI Top 50, toppling Belmont (20) and Southern Miss (46).

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