Sophomore Memphis guard Joe Jackson was the last player to leave the court Saturday afternoon, the latest chapter in his college career behind him. As he approached the corridor leading to the Memphis locker room, the remaining fans at FedExForum chanted his name and offered their congratulations.
Jackson, who missed several key free throws in a loss to Southern Miss on Wednesday, went 12-of-12 from the stripe and led the Tigers to an improbable 72-68 comeback victory against Xavier in front of 17,097 fans at FedExForum.
With the help of Jackson’s timely free throws, the Tigers overcame an 11-point second-half deficit and a career performance from Xavier forward Dezmine Wells to strengthen their NCAA tournament at-large aspirations.
“Everybody that played gave us great energy,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “Even the bench was great. We just stayed the course, and it was a great win for us, there’s no doubt.”
In what felt eerily like their win against UTEP in last season’s Conference USA tournament, the Tigers seemed to flip a switch with under seven minutes remaining. They were more patient offensively and hit another gear on defense, holding the Musketeers without a field goal for nearly seven minutes late in the second half.
The Tigers shot 43.1 percent for the game but were 24-of-28 from the free throw line, a big reason they were able to sustain their rally in the second half.
“(Memphis’) length, athleticism and quickness over the last five minutes really took over, and you have to give them credit,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “We tried to execute some things down the stretch, but they really played tough defensively.”
For the Tigers, and more specifically Jackson, it was a matter of sheer resiliency.
Many have questioned Jackson’s proficiency not just as a college point guard, but as a high-level basketball player in general. Matched up with Musketeers’ senior guard Tu Holloway on Saturday, however, it was Jackson who got the better of the First Team All-American, flustering the senior guard into a 3-of-12 shooting effort.
“I just played him hard every possession to show him that I ain’t backing down,” said Jackson, who finished with 14 points and eight assists. “That’s all I tried to do. I didn’t try to be Superman. I just came in and played hard.”
For the first 15 minutes of the second half, though, it appeared as if the Tigers would indeed cave to the Musketeers. With a healthy mixture of Wells and Holloway, Xavier opened the second half on a 9-2 run that put the Musketeers ahead 46-36 with 15:21 to play.
Every defensive strategy the Tigers threw at Wells failed, as the freshman finished with a career high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting. His and-one conversion with 6:51 left to play, which put Xavier up 62-51, seemed to effectively put the game out of the reach.
But, as has so often been the case under Memphis coach Josh Pastner, the Tigers refused to submit so easily. Suddenly coming up with 50-50 balls and getting defensive stops on the Musketeers, the Tigers closed the game on a 21-6 run.
Senior forward Wesley Witherspoon was a large factor in the closing run, who scored all 12 of his points in the second half. His three-pointer with 5:59 left whittled the Musketeers’ lead to eight and prevented the game from being blown open.
“Being resilient is something we’ve been practicing for a long time, with the way a lot of us have come up,” said sophomore forward Tarik Black, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. “We’re not gonna give up. We’re out here to prove that we’re just as good as anybody else that you can name. This is something we know, but we have to prove it.”
With 23 seconds left to play and the Tigers ahead 66-63, Holloway slashed to the right side of the rim and elevated, only to have his shot blocked by the 5-foot-11 Jackson in a win-preserving play.
“I’ve still been in the gym every night trying to get better,” Jackson said. “It’s just paying off. I haven’t really accomplished nothing yet, but I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to be doing as a player. I’m supposed to play like that and be a big-time player.”
The win over Xavier, which entered the game with a Top 50 RPI, jumps to the top of the Tigers’ resume. For a team desperate to earn a signature non-conference win, Saturday was about as close as it gets.
“We just stayed the course,” Pastner said. “We didn't get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. We stayed sound and solid. We just gutted that out. Xavier is an NCAA tournament team. To get that type of win is fantastic.”