BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Late in the game Saturday at Bartow Arena, pride kicked in for University of Memphis sophomore guard Chris Crawford.
UAB guard Jordan Swing had hit five three-pointers, and with the Tigers ahead by three with under 10 seconds to go, Crawford was determined not to let him drill a sixth.
Crawford swatted away a last-second Swing three-pointer to preserve the Tigers’ 62-59 Conference USA-opening win against the Blazers in front of 8,242 at Bartow Arena.
“I feel like that’s my role on this team,” said Crawford, who finished with 10 points and three steals. “I’ve always been a defender. I love playing defense, getting a lot of steals and tough rebounds. I just feel I can do a lot of things on defense to make us be successful.”
Memphis coach Josh Pastner assigned Crawford to Swing late in the game, as the Western Kentucky transfer had largely been getting the better of freshman guard Adonis Thomas.
“Chris has been really good defensively and he locked in,” Pastner said. “We made a switch and put Chris on Swing and he got stops.”
Saturday’s installment was yet another physical, gritty, back-and-forth battle between the two conference foes. Sophomore guard Will Barton paced the Tigers with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Thomas scored 15 and led the team with three blocks.
“Everytime we play them, I expect a tough game,” Barton said. “They’re well-coached and they’ve got some good players.”
The Tigers, as a unit, flustered the Blazers into a 6-of-22 shooting second half. The Blazers shot 39.1 percent for the game and led 32-31 at halftime.
Despite Memphis’ starting big men Ferrakohn Hall and Tarik Black both fouling out, UAB was unable to take advantage of the Tigers’ lack of size in the post and was outscored by Memphis 34-20 in the paint.
UAB forward Cameron Moore, who was defended mostly by junior forward D.J. Stephens in the second half, finished with 20 points but scored just six in the second half.
Swing finished with 19 for the Blazers.
With Hall and Black both battling foul trouble the whole night, Memphis got a big lift from Stephens, whose stick back dunk with 4:25 remaining put the Tigers ahead 59-55.
On UAB’s subsequent possession, Stephens, battling a knee injury, skied in for a block on Moore with the shot clock whittling down.
“He played through pain and we got the win,” Pastner said. “To win games in conference and especially on the road, you’ve gotta be hard-nosed. We were thin and we found a way to get the win.”
With 10 minutes and 39 seconds left in the game and the Blazers leading 47-43, Crawford hit a tough mid-range jumper in transition to end a 6-0 UAB run and swing the momentum back in the Tigers’ favor.
Memphis shot 55 percent for the game and out-rebounded the Blazers, 29-25. The Tigers also registered 11 blocks, the third time out of four games Memphis has tallied double-digit blocks.
“I’m very, very proud of the guys,” Pastner said. “That was not an easy game.”
Memphis got a valiant effort from senior forward Wesley Witherspoon, whose role has diminished thus far this season. After Crawford got the block on Swing, Witherspoon had the presence of mind to bounce the loose ball off Swing’s leg to give Memphis the possession.
“I’m a basketball player, and I make basketball plays,” Witherspoon said. “Anybody that wants to win is gonna do what they have to do to win.”
On the following inbound, however, Witherspoon’s pass was intercepted by UAB forward Ovie Soko, who called a timeout with .7 seconds left. Crawford picked off the Blazers’ next inbound as time expired.
Pastner took full responsibility for Witherspoon’s decision-making on the next-to-last play, which could’ve led to a UAB three to send the game into overtime.
“I left too much gray area, and that was on me,” Pastner said. “That’s not on Wesley whatsoever. I either wanted to get it to the guys in the backcourt. The second option was a timeout, or if he saw DJ right there one-on-one just let him get it.”
For the Tigers, it was a hard-earned victory that could set the tone in C-USA. At 10-5, it’s vital that Memphis has very few hiccups within the weaker conference this season to avoid a low seed come tournament time.
“We’re grooving,” Barton said. “We’re getting ready for a streak. It’s time to go on a big win streak and take over. That’s our whole goal. We wanna be conference champs, so we’ve gotta get wins. That’s all it is.”