University of Memphis coach Josh Pastner said it more times in the preseason than he probably cared to count.
The Tigers’ offense, with the prolific scorers they have, is bound to be clicking on most nights. But his early season task — and he let anyone within an earshot know it — was getting his skilled offensive players to play with the same tenacity on defense. To hang their hats on it, he said.
Memphis, it appears, has grown tired of hearing it.
The Tigers (9-5) put together a third straight stellar defensive effort — and perhaps their best overall effort of the season — to stymie in-state foe Tennessee, 69-51, on Wednesday at FedExForum. It‘s the third straight game a Memphis opponent has failed to crack 60 points.
“We’re going to have to win games grinding it out,” Pastner said. “We’re winning the games — and it’s not pretty — by grinding it out on the defensive end.”
Sophomore guard Antonio Barton led the way with 19 points in his third straight start, going 4-of-5 from 3-point range and 5-of-7 overall. Guard Trae Golden finished with 22 points for the Vols.
The Tigers, who beat Tennessee 99-97 in double overtime two months ago, refused to let themselves get exploited like they were against the Vols in Maui. Tennessee was unable to settle in offensively and shot just 36.2 percent from the field and 24 percent from deep.
With a healthy dose of three defenders — Wesley Witherspoon, Ferrakohn Hall, and Tarik Black — switching on him throughout the game, the Tigers held Vol forward Jeronne Maymon in check. Maymon, who torched Memphis in Maui for 32 points and 20 rebounds, scored just nine points on 4-of-15 shooting and had just nine rebounds.
Black, on the other hand, had one of his better games this season and finished with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting and seven rebounds.
“It wasn’t necessarily redemption for me but for the whole team, because that’s not my personal task (to guard one man),” Black said. “We do things as a team. It’s never personal, like ‘This player did this, so it’s your fault.’ It’s about what we can do as a team to stop them from having a game like that again.”
In shutting down Maymon, the Tigers took away the Vols’ best rebounder and they reaped the benefits. Memphis outrebounded the Vols, 36-26, and limited their opportunities at second chance points. It was a vast contrast from their matchup in Maui, in which the Vols dominated Memphis on the boards, 47-32.
“We had to stop getting beat on the boards, period, despite what (Maymon) did (in Maui),” Black said. “As a team, they beat us on the boards. So we came out and put a gameplan together and we acted on it.”
In acting on the game plan, the Tigers put forth one of their best pure efforts of the season. They fought through seemingly every screen and clawed for every rebound and loose ball, a far cry from what they’d been doing earlier in the season.
“I could feel it from all my teammates,” Hall said. “They just really wanted to win. Last year in Knoxville, they got embarrassed. So we came back and we didn’t want this to go into double overtime. We wanted to put a stamp on this one.”
The Tigers led 28-20 at halftime.
While Memphis controlled the game almost entirely, the Vols cut the lead to seven after guard Cam Tatum canned a three to make it 37-30 with 15:02 left in the game.
But with no answer for Black inside and Barton on the perimeter, the Vols were unable to get stops defensively and trailed 63-43 with 3:47 left after a Barton three.
“We played our hearts out,” Black said. “That’s what we need to do, night in and night out. Coach Pastner told us before the game that we needed to go out on the court and leave every ounce of energy we have on the court and that’s what we did.”
NOTES: With 8:10 remaining in the game, sophomore guard Joe Jackson was fouled hard on a layup attempt by Tennessee guard Wes Washpun. After colliding in mid-air, the two guards got tangled up on the floor, which led to frustration boiling over and the two teams getting involved in a skirmish.
Pastner sprinted to the scrum and did his best to separate the teams. Sophomore guard Will Barton and Washpun were assessed technical fouls. The officials issued no ejections.