MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Memphis overcame its trouble closing out games, dispatching Houston with defense down the stretch.
A free throw by Precious Achiuwa with 28.2 seconds left gave the Tigers a 60-59 victory over the 22nd-ranked Cougars on Saturday, but Memphis sealed the win by keeping the Cougars from scoring in the closing seconds.
Houston missed four shots in the final 2:23, the last one with Achiuwa guarding Houston’s Caleb Mills, who led the Cougars with 21 points.
“I can’t think of a better designed (play) than to get the ball to Caleb Mills in space for the last shot,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said, later noting that Mills was 7 of 14 from the field “on that same play. So why wouldn’t we run it again?”
Malcolm Dandridge led the Tigers with 12 points, making all five of his shots. Achiuwa scored 10 points, as did Tyler Harris and Lester Quinones.
The Tigers (19-8, 8-6 American Athletic Conference) had seen leads slip away at home in losses to SMU, Georgia, South Florida and others this season. This time, Memphis held on.
“It’s a confidence booster for sure,” Harris said. “Going into these next couple of games, we have a swagger about ourselves.”
The Cougars struggled from the field. Mills scored 18 points and Marcus Sasser added 18. But Houston shot less than 26% in the first half and, despite hitting 46% after halftime, the Cougars couldn’t convert in the closing minutes.
“Our defense was good,” Sampson said. “I thought we defended them well. I thought we rebounded well. We shot 34%. … We had our chances and we had our opportunities. We’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves.”
Like Memphis, Houston has struggled in close games this season. The Cougars have lost four conference games by a total of six points, and their seven losses have been by a total of 25 points.
“We’ve lost four games by one point or the last possession. You got to make winning plays,” Sampson said, noting they got to the line only 12 times and made nine. “Then we had some opportunities to make big shots, and that’s the difference between winning and losing.”
Sasser’s 3-pointer gave Houston the lead with just under seven minutes left. It started a string of nine straight points for Sasser.
The teams exchanged leads down the stretch. Mills converted a pair of free throws with 47 seconds left to tie it at 59. Achiuwa then made the second of two free throws for the final margin.
“Amazing game for us for a lot of reasons,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “A lot of things we did today, we haven’t been doing well. … Today, I felt like for 40 minutes we showed who we were and who we could be defensively and offensively.”
Houston is the only AAC member to hold a spot in the AP Top 25. The Cougars could fall out of the poll on Monday.
Memphis: The Tigers needed the win since they are considered on the outside looking in on the NCAA Tournament. Memphis struggled from the field, especially Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis and Quinones, who combined to go 3 of 24.
The loss was in keeping with one of Houston’s problems this season – all of its Saturday conference games have been on the road.
“This is our fifth Saturday road game,” Sampson said. “Not playing a Saturday home game with our kids. So, every Saturday we’ve played, it’s been on the road. We played at Cincinnati on a Saturday, at SMU on a Saturday, at Memphis on a Saturday, at Tulsa on a Saturday. We put ourselves in a position to win every one of those games. The Memphis kids played a little better today.”
Houston: Hosts Cincinnati on March 1.
Memphis: At SMU on Tuesday.
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