MEMPHIS -- Antonio Barton has never actually heard anybody call Memphis soft. So he has no idea if it's really happening. All he knows is that Josh Pastner won't stop saying it's happening.
"I don't know if teams are saying that or if Coach is just telling us that to motivate us, but nobody on our team likes hearing we're soft," Barton said. "We're not soft. … We're not trying to come and start fights or anything. But we're not gonna let nobody walk over us."
Memphis beat Tennessee 69-51 Wednesday here at FedExForum. The Tigers were a few bad things in the win. Like ...
- Careless with the basketball.
- Subpar beyond the arc.
- Sometimes confused in halfcourt sets.
But they weren't soft.
Nobody can call them soft after this performance because Memphis scrapped and pushed (both figuratively and literally) and righted some of the wrongs from its double-overtime win against Tennessee that came in November during the Maui Invitational. In that game, the Tigers were out-rebounded by a 47-32 margin while giving up 17 offensive boards. In this game, Memphis out-rebounded the Vols by a 36-26 margin and only allowed eight offensive boards. UT's Jeronne Maymon got 32 points and 20 rebounds in the first meeting while Memphis' Tarik Black was held to six points and two rebounds. Black got 18 points and seven rebounds in this meeting while Maymon was limited to nine points (on a 4-of-15 shooting effort) and nine rebounds.
Memphis held Tennessee to 36.2 percent shooting, 23.8 percent from 3-point range.
The players fought through screens nonstop with a purpose.
They also nearly fought the Vols.
"We had to show them we're not scared," Joe Jackson answered when asked about the scrum that followed a fastbreak that ended with the sophomore guard being fouled hard. "They say our team's soft and all that. But I'm not soft. And from here on out I'm gonna play with that edge."
The win pushed the Tigers to 9-5 and was particularly fun for most of the 18,334 people in attendance because there's nothing Memphis fans enjoy more than beating Tennessee in something, but Pastner liked the game for other reasons. He knows it won't catapult his program back into the national rankings, and I'm assuming he knows that if you strip away the names this was merely a lopsided victory over what will ultimately be a bottom-tier SEC team. But, still, something clicked. The Tigers guarded in a way they haven't guarded all season and worked to secure missed shots and loose balls. They didn't look like the top 10 team they were projected to be back in October, exactly. But they did look very much like an outfit equipped to run though the Conference USA portion of their schedule, record around 25 or 26 victories and make the NCAA tournament.
The talent is in place.
The points have always come.
The only real questions about this team have been questions about toughness and heart and togetherness.
And, at least for a night, those questions were answered."People say we don't play hard and that we can't rebound," Black said. "I think we proved them wrong."