Less than two weeks ago America had its most recent opportunity to watch Josh Pastner’s Memphis Tigers in a “big” game, as they visited Stillwater to take on Oklahoma State. With the amount of talent on the roster, the Tigers were expected to put up a fight at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Instead Marcus Smart went off in the first half and Memphis didn’t respond when punched in the mouth, resulting in a 101-80 defeat that wasn’t as close as the final margin would indicate.
That was the backdrop for Sunday’s rematch in the title game of the Old Spice Classic, with many wondering if Memphis had what it took to win a high-profile contest such as this one. Could the Tigers respond with the mental toughness needed to win a game of this magnitude? Sure enough Memphis did, coming back from a ten-point halftime deficit to beat the Cowboys 73-68 to take home the Old Spice Classic crown.
Shaq Goodwin, named MVP of the event, led the way with 17 points and eight rebounds and his steal of a Marcus Smart pass in the game’s final seconds proved to be the difference. And the guards who didn’t show up in the first meeting did so in the rematch, with Chris Crawford (16 points) and Michael Dixon Jr. (12 points) both hitting key shots down the stretch and Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson also contributing. The most important feat for the Memphis perimeter: their work in defending Marcus Smart.
Smart scored 39 points in the first meeting, doing just about whatever he wanted on that night. In the rematch Smart shot 4-for-13 from the field, finishing with 12 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three turnovers. Memphis made Smart work for everything, especially in the second half, and if the national Player of the Year candidate got past the guards there was a big man (or two) waiting for him in the paint.
As a team the Cowboys shot 8-for-21 from the field in the second half and turned the ball over nine times (by comparison, Memphis committed just two in the half), and while their poor execution can be noted Memphis’ defensive effort should be mentioned as well. Memphis landed the first blow in the second half, immediately going on a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to just three points. Would that have happened in Stillwater just 12 days prior? Probably not.
The headlines will focus on Josh Pastner’s team getting a Top 25 victory, and given how the Tigers have struggled in such games since Pastner was hired that’s certainly fair. But there’s also value in the improved mental toughness displayed by Memphis, and that’s something that can benefit the Tigers as the season rolls on.