Sophomore University of Memphis guard leaned back in his locker, his eyes shut as he began the process of mentally blocking out what he’d just experienced.
In an almost complete reversal of what happened in last season’s Conference USA tournament championship against the Miners, the Tigers squandered a 13-point first-half lead and faltered late, falling 60-58 after Barton’s potentially game-winning 3-pointer fell short.
“The play was designed for me to get the ball and make a play,” Barton said. “I just didn’t make the winning play.”
Just as the C-USA tournament championship win subsequently revitalized Memphis’ season in 2011, this is one that could haunt the Tigers (19-8, 9-3 Conference USA) through the remainder of the season.
For the first time since December, Memphis received votes in this week’s AP polls. Winners of 13 of their last 15, the Tigers seemed to have hit a stride and entered Saturday’s game tied for first-place with Southern Miss.
But with every 3-point miss — there were 13 of them — and blown layup — there were two too many — against the Miners, the Tigers distanced themselves further from any championship conversation.
Memphis failed to adequately supplement sophomore forward Tarik Black, who scored a career-high 26 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. His guard cohorts combined to go 8-of-35 from the floor.
The Miners, who trailed 28-19 at halftime, were much more deliberate offensively in the second half. Michael Perez and Jacques Streeter led the 61-percent second-half shooting effort. Perez’s two free throws tied things up at 55 apiece with two minutes left in the game.
“It’s a lot of things that took place for this loss,” Black said. “(Our guards) going 8-of-35 — our bigs have had bad nights. Offense is not gonna be perfect at all. As a unit on defense, we didn’t take care of business. That’s the main thing. Defense is what wins games for us. Defensively, if we would’ve taken care of business, we would’ve pulled out with a win.”
Early in the game, however, the Tigers’ offense was as sound as it’s been all season. They led 19-6 with 8:08 left in the first half and appeared to be on their way to the runaway victory most people expected against the Miners.
Because UTEP was mostly incapable of fronting Black one-on-one, Memphis found itself going inside more than usual. But as the game wore on, UTEP coach Tim Floyd mixed up his defensive strategies and sagged off the ice-cold Memphis guards, making entry passes into Black that much more difficult.
“Obviously, what they were doing, UTEP just sat in the paint and laid off of us,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “We had some wide open looks that we’ve gotta finish. We had two lay-ups. We had a couple wide open jump shots. They were just packing it in because they couldn’t guard Tarik. We just needed to hit one or two threes or something, just to force them to guard.”
But Memphis failed to do just that. It shot 38 percent for the game and an abysmal 24 percent from three, and the Tigers’ 58-point output was the lowest of the season. For the first time since Jan. 25, Barton, the team’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game, failed to finish in double figures. He had just nine points on 3-of-9 shooting.
“I give UTEP a lot of credit, they came out and executed their game plan and won,” Barton said.
“But it’s more of us. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do. We beat ourselves.”
The Miners took their first lead of the game, 57-55, with 1:19 to play after two Cedrick Lang free throws. On Memphis’ next possession, sophomore guard Chris Crawford dribbled the ball off his foot and the Miners recovered the loose ball, getting a timeout amidst a scrum.
Just as Streeter advanced the ball past half-court, Jackson committed an inexplicable foul and, with the Tigers in the bonus, sent him to the free throw line, where he extended the Miners’ lead to four, 59-55, with 37 seconds left.
“We said in the huddle 50 times minimum, ‘Do not foul. Do not foul,’” Pastner said. “We were gonna get a trap all over, and once they get past half-court, (play) solid defense. No foul. I love Joe, but that was just an error.”
For the Tigers, it was a game of too many second-half miscues and second-half lapses, which ended with Barton’s missed three at the buzzer.
The play, Pastner said, was drawn up for Barton to curl off a pin-down screen from Crawford and drive to the basket, and from there either go up for a simple layup attempt, find Black in the post, or kick back out to an open Crawford.
The screen never materialized, though, and Barton attempted the game-winner instead.
“I don’t mind the sense that he took the shot, because obviously he’s been one of our best players all year long,” Pastner said. “I’ve touted him to be like an All-American. He was playing like an All-American, and today, he didn’t play like an All-American. He’s gotta step up. A shot like that, he had an open look — he’s gotta step up and make it.”