Wednesday was a big night in Conference USA with the top six teams in the standings playing each other. And with the results the race is now pared down to four teams separated by one game, with Tulsa and UTEP both coming back from double-digit deficits while Memphis beat UAB in a game much tighter than the 85-75 final would indicate. There were 31 lead changes, with the Tigers taking the lead for good on a pair of Wesley Witherspoon free throws with 3:40 remaining. Over the final 3:40 Memphis outscored the Blazers 16-6, making key plays on the defensive end to move their conference record to 6-2 while dropping UAB to the same record.
Witherspoon, who made some critical comments about the Tiger fan base on Facebook earlier this week (which he apologized for following the game), made up for a pair of poor showings on the road with a career-high 29 points while Elliot Williams added 25. "He was phenomenal tonight. He was absolutely outstanding," said head coach Josh Pastner of Witherspoon. "I'm so proud of him for the way he played tonight (quote courtesy of University of Memphis Athletics)."
Memphis made 60% of their shots in the second half but the defensive efforts of Will Coleman (a crucial block of a dunk attempt as the Blazers looked to make a final push) and Doneal Mack (who was the "1" in Memphis' box-and-1 set in response to Jamarr Sanders' 14 first-half points). Elijah Millsap scored sixteen points in the second half to lead UAB in scoring with eighteen but the Tigers' defense, forcing nineteen turnovers, combined with their offensive performance ultimately decided the outcome. As a result both are within striking distance of first place going into the weekend.
As for the Golden Hurricane, they used an early second half run to knock off Marshall 73-69 and drop the Thundering Herd to 4-4 in league play (tied with Houston), with Jerome Jordan outplaying Hassan Whiteside in a matchup of NBA prospects. Jordan posted a double-double with 24 points and 12 rebounds while the freshman managed just one rebound to go with ten points. Tyler Wilkerson (Marshall) led all scorers with 26 points but the foul line (Tulsa +12 in points from the charity stripe) was the deciding factor.
And in El Paso, Derrick Caracter accounted for 22 points and 13 rebounds in the Miners' 65-58 win over Houston. In winning UTEP made the explosive Aubrey Coleman work; he scored a game-high 27 but did so on 9-for-27 shooting. How many bids can Conference USA earn? At this rate you can't rule out three teams, especially given how soft the bubble looks to be at this time. But there's still a month between now and the conference tournament in Tulsa, giving all parties involved ample time to decide their own fate in one way or another.
Three Key Happenings
1. Break up the USF Bulls! Stan Heath's program is on a roll that's never been seen at the Tampa school during their time in the Big East, winning their fourth consecutive league game on Wednesday night 72-64 at Georgetown. Dominique Jones, who really should be considered for All-America honors at season's end, scored 22 second-half points on his way to a game-high 29 while Mike Mercer added 12 for the victorious Bulls. Greg Monroe and Austin Freeman scored 21 points apiece to lead Georgetown but both were relatively quiet in the second half, and Monroe fouled out with just under three minutes left in the game.
The difference? Turnovers. Georgetown, who led at the half 35-26, turned the ball over eight times in the second half (three assists) on their way to fourteen for the game. By comparison, USF turned the ball over just eight times for the entire game and now the question has to be whether or not they're a part of the "bubble" conversation. They've got some solid victories to their credit and with Gus Gilchrist likely due back within the next week they've got a chance to keep the ball rolling. And while they're going to have to deal with opponents fully aware of what they are capable of, this is a time to recognize how important this win is to the USF program.
"We never won a game like this on the road and our confidence has been growing and we won some games on the road but this one is a huge jump on the radar screen," said Coach Heath after the game. "There will be a lot of people that are really shocked and all we are trying to do is keep going through the journey and doing the best job we can and grow as players and people (quote courtesy of Georgetown University Athletics)."
2. Texas A&M picks up a key win on the road. Mark Turgeon's Aggies let one get away at Texas on January 16th, falling in overtime 72-67 and with their best wins coming either at home or on a neutral floor they needed a good road win. How does ending Missouri's 32-game home win streak sound? That's exactly what Texas A&M was able to do on Wednesday night, surviving a late Tiger rally to win 77-74. David Loubeau led the Aggies with 17 points, scoring twelve in the second half, while the team held Missouri without a field goal for ten minutes of the second half. Donald Sloan and Khris Middleton added 17 and 16 points respectively while Kim English led the Tigers with 15.
For the game the Aggies made 52% of their shots while Missouri hit just 41.7% of theirs, negating a ten shot edge in regards to attempts while also shooting 9-for-28 from distance (A&M, on the other hand, made six of ten). Texas A&M also controlled the boards, outrebounding the smaller Tigers 41-24 to make up for twenty turnovers against the Missouri press. While this win isn't the one that will push the Aggies over the hump in regards to making the NCAA Tournament it certainly doesn't hurt, and with games against Baylor, Kansas and Texas at home they'll have opportunities to improve their resume even more.
3. Evan Turner should be the frontrunner for National Player of the Year. For those who had any doubt in regards to the frontrunner for National Player of the Year you may want to remember how the Ohio State Buckeyes played when the junior was out with a back injury. Solid players struggled due to the loss of their best distributor, rebounder and scorer, and there's no player that has this kind of impact on his team (especially a winning one). Turner put together another standout performance on Wednesday night, accounting for 27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in Ohio State's 75-62 win over Penn State.
Turner currently leads the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding while ranking second in assists per game, and he scored 22 points in the second half to withstand a Nittany Lion rally and a Jon Diebler three with 1:29 to go gave the Buckeyes the breathing room they needed. As Turner goes so goes the rest of Thad Matta's team, and while other Player of the Year candidates can afford to have off nights due to the talent that surrounds them, there really is no other player that can take over a game for Ohio State. Evan Turner has received much praise this season and all of it is warranted.
Top Three Games
1. Tulsa 73, Marshall 69 See above.
2. Saint Louis 67, St. Bonaventure 65 A Kwamain Mitchell jumper with 1.4 seconds left gave the Billikens the two-point home victory. Mitchell scored 16 of his game-high 17 points in the second half while Andrew Nicholson and Jonathan Hall scored 13 apiece for the Bonnies.
3. Kansas 72, Colorado 66 The Jayhawks survived a game group of Buffaloes in Boulder, dominating the boards in the extra session to avoid the upset. Colorado's Marcus Relphorde led all scorers with 18 points while Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich scored 16 apiece for Kansas.
Three Notable Performances
1. G/F Evan Turner (Ohio State) 27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the Buckeyes' 75-62 win over Penn State.
2. G/F Anatoly Bose (Nicholls State) 38 points (11-22 FG) and six rebounds in the Colonels' 68-67 loss at Stephen F. Austin. The problem: the other four starters managed to score just ten points combined.
3. G Dominique Jones (USF) 29 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals in the Bulls' 72-64 win at #8 Georgetown.