TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Penny Hardaway sees No. 21 Memphis coming together as a team that’ll have to be reckoned with by season’s end.
“We’re building,” the coach said Sunday after the Tigers rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit to beat South Florida 68-64 and stop a two-game losing streak that’s threatened to knock them out of the AP Top 25.
“We want to be great by March. … We did go on a 10-game streak, and I was very proud of that. Then we lost two back-to-back,” Hardaway said, reflecting on a three-point home loss to Georgia and a nine-point loss at No. 23 Wichita State. “We want to be great by the time March comes, get into the (NCAA) Tournament and make some noise.”
Precious Achiuwa scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and Tyler Harris finished with 17 points for the Tigers (13-3, 2-1 American Athletic Conference), who held USF (8-9, 1-3) scoreless from the field over the final 6:37. Lester Quinones scored 13 for Memphis, which trailed 51-37 with 13:15 left.
Achiuwa’s three-point play gave Memphis its first lead since midway through the first half, and the 6-foot-9 freshman from Queens, New York, put the Tigers ahead for good, 63-61, on a dunk with 1:40 remaining.
“Man, we hung in there. We knew this was a tough place to play. Their record doesn’t indicate how well they play at home, how well they play together,” Hardaway said. “Overall, to go in the second half and then scrap it out against a team that plays well at home like this, I’m very proud of the boys.”
David Collins led USF with 24 points, but the Bulls missed nine of 10 shots after the junior guard’s dunk capped an 8-0 spurt that gave South Florida its biggest lead of the day. The team’s lone basket down the stretch was Ezacuras Dawson’s jumper for a 58-54 lead.
Memphis had 22 turnovers but helped itself down the stretch by doing a better job of protecting the ball over the last 10 minutes.
The Tigers also overcame a slow start from the foul line, making eight of 11 free throws in the last 5:28.
“David Collins is an unbelievable player. He’s one of the most underrated players in the country,” Hardaway said. “At that point when he got that dunk, I just said to the boys: ‘There’s plenty of time left, we have to shut him down.’ We just tried to put our attention on not letting David beat us and it worked out for us.”
South Florida missed its last six shots.
“We went through a little bit of a cold spell shooting and we weren’t able to get the defensive stops during that time that we needed to get,” Bulls coach Brian Gregory said.
“I thought our guys played their hearts out, I thought they played really hard,” Gregory added. “We just weren’t able to get the defensive stops when our offense slowed up a little.”
One of the youngest teams in the nation, Memphis opened with four freshmen and a sophomore, Alex Lomax, who was in the starting lineup for the first time this season as the Tigers continue to search for the right mix on the floor without top recruit James Wiseman.
Sunday was the day Wiseman was due to return from a 12-game suspension the NCAA imposed after finding that a payment Hardaway made to the 7-foot-1 center’s family in 2017 before Hardaway became the coach at his alma mater was an improper benefit.
Wiseman, who averaged 19.7 points and 10.7 rebounds in three games before the suspension, announced last month that he was leaving Memphis to begin preparing for the NBA draft, where he’s expected to be a high pick.
The Tigers’ latest lineup, which also included first-time starter Malcolm Dandridge, didn’t alter a trend of falling behind by double digits early.
Memphis: The Tigers dropped 12 spots in the rankings after losing 65-62 at Georgia on Jan. 4. They fell 76-67 at Wichita State last Thursday. Struggling before rallying to win Sunday may not be enough to stop them from tumbling out of the Top 25.
South Florida: Fell to 6-27 all-time in a series that dates to the 1972-73 season. The Bulls haven’t beaten a ranked team since a seven-point upset of Louisville (No. 19) in February 2012, a string of 28 consecutive games against Top 25 opponents.
Memphis: Return home from two-game road swing to host Cincinnati on Thursday.
South Florida: At UCF next Saturday.
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