No. 20 Memphis tops USM 91-79 for C-USA title
TULSA, Okla. (AP) — With the best performances of his career, the Conference USA tournament belonged to Chris Crawford.
It just took a little longer for him to get heated up in the championship game and lead No. 20 Memphis to its seventh conference title in the past eight years.
Crawford scored 20 of his 23 points in the final 13 minutes, including the go-ahead 3-pointer in double overtime, and the Tigers beat Southern Miss 91-79 on Saturday to cut down the nets for the third straight year.
“It’s just great to leave out on this note. Winning the conference, we’re 19-0. That’s very hard to do, to win the conference tournament and go undefeated in the regular season,” said Memphis forward Adonis Thomas, who added 19 points and eight rebounds.
“So, I think we did a great job — an outstanding job, as a matter of fact.”
Crawford, the league’s Sixth Man of the Year, connected on a 3-pointer from the left wing to put the top-seeded Tigers (30-4) up 78-76 with 2:44 remaining. He also had a jumper and a pair of free throws in a 9-0 run by Memphis soon after that finally put the game away.
Crawford had been on the hottest of stretches, setting new career highs with 30 points and eight 3-pointers in the semifinals. Those numbers eclipsed his 24 points and six 3-pointers from the previous game, which had been the best of his career.
This time, he had just three points with 3 minutes left in regulation before making the biggest plays once again and being named tournament MVP.
“To start the game off, I was really rushing my shot. I wasn’t in a rhythm really,” Crawford said. “The second half, my teammates kept telling me to keep shooting after I was missing. They had a lot of confidence in me. My coaches kept telling me to keep shooting and in the second half, I found a rhythm.”
Joe Jackson, the Tigers’ leading scorer, added 22 points after being held scoreless for the first time all season in the semifinals.
Daveon Boardingham scored 19 points and Jonathan Mills had 15 points and 17 rebounds for second-seeded Southern Miss (25-9), which nearly clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Instead, the Golden Eagles must hope to get their second straight at-large bid on Sunday.
“We’re heartbroken right now and I don’t want to become a lobbyist, but that was a borderline Final Four-type team we just lost to and we need to be in the NCAA tournament,” first-year coach Donnie Tyndall said. “We deserve to be in and I feel that if we get in, we can win a game or two.”
Dwayne Davis hit one of two free throws after Crawford’s 3-pointer, and Thomas and Crawford then hit back-to-back jumpers for Memphis. Jackson then stripped Davis and ran out for a two-handed slam to make it 84-77 with 44.2 seconds left.
After letting Southern Miss come back from seven down in the final minute of regulation by missing free throws, Memphis made enough to close it out in double overtime. The Tigers went undefeated against C-USA competition for the fourth time in seven years and won their third straight league tournament.
Memphis has won the title all six times it was the top seed in the Conference USA tournament, going 18-0.
“That’s hard stuff to do, and we don’t take it for granted,” Pastner said. “We don’t take it for granted it’s the third straight NCAA appearance. You don’t take those things for granted.
“It is not a birthright. That is why I’m just so proud of these young men. The players made plays.”
The Golden Eagles were unable to take advantage of a chance to take the lead late in regulation after Shaq Goodwin was called for a flagrant foul when his right arm swung and inadvertently connected with Mills’ cheek. Mills missed one of two free throws with 1:59 left, Jerrold Brooks missed the front end of the resulting 1-and-1 and Watson made only one of two foul shots after Southern Miss also got to retain possession.
Crawford immediately expanded the Tigers’ one-point lead with back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 60-53 with 38.3 seconds left in regulation.
Brooks answered right away with his own 3 at the other end, and Mills had two straight putbacks — the second after Geron Johnson missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Joe Jackson also missed the front end of a one-and-one with 4.4 seconds left, and Watson zipped to the opposite end to make a runner at the buzzer and tie it at 62.
Replays showed the ball leaving Watson’s hand with one-tenth of a second left on the clock.
Watson also had a chance to win the game at the end of the first overtime, but his turnaround jumper from the left wing was after the buzzer and off-target. Jackson made a jumper from the left elbow with 11.2 seconds left to tie it at 72.
Southern Miss had all five starters score in double figures, getting 16 from Davis, 11 from Watson and 10 from Brooks. The Golden Eagles haven’t won a league tournament title since 1952 in the Gulf States Conference.
“We really feel like we should have won that game, honestly,” said Davis, who had a string of four straight 20-point games snapped. “We’ve gotten better all year, and we deserve a shot” at the NCAA tournament.
Neither team led by more than five until the final minute of regulation, after Crawford’s second straight 3-pointer.
Even against Memphis’ bigger front line, the Golden Eagles were able to get inside for easier baskets and outscored the Tigers 50-22 in the paint. At the other end, the Tigers couldn’t solve the Southern Miss zone enough to pull away without Crawford knocking down outside shots with regularity.
Crawford had made 19 3-pointers in Memphis’ last three games, but he started out 1 for 7 from 3-point range and didn’t get going until the final 3 minutes of regulation. When it mattered most, he was on target once again.
“We understood that the game wasn’t over,” said Memphis’ D.J. Stephens, who scored 12. “We’ve been in tough situations before. We just had to weather the storm, just stay poised, do whatever it took to win the game.”