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A closer look: Memphis 99, Tennessee 97

11/22/2011

Overview: On Monday, it took us until the fourth matchup of the day to get a really competitive, tight game. On Tuesday, the Maui Invitational wasted no such time. In the first game of the day -- a 9 a.m. tipoff locally -- the Memphis Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers played a high-octane rivalry thriller that took two overtimes to decide. Memphis led for much of the game and by as much as 16 in the first half, but Tennessee closed the lead in the second half, and the Volunteers -- led by a brilliant performance from forward Jeronne Maymon -- kept finding bucket after bucket as they refused to go away.

There was suspense until the final whistle. With 3.5 seconds remaining, Tennessee's inbounds pass was stolen by Memphis forward Wesley Witherspoon, but Witherspoon -- thinking the game was over -- traveled and gave the ball back to the Vols with one second left on the clock. Maymon's fadeaway elbow jumper missed everything, though, and Memphis escaped with the 99-97 win.

What a game.

Turning point: The final moments of the second overtime decided the game, but Tennessee, after battling back for 45 minutes, squandered a major opportunity to seal a win in the first OT. With 35 seconds left, UT guard Trae Golden drove to the rim and attempted a wild reverse layup -- one of Golden's 16 misses Tuesday (3-of-19) -- that was rebounded by Memphis guard Will Barton. Barton quickly fired the ball upcourt to teammate Chris Crawford, who dipped into Tennessee's defense and converted a quick layup on the break. That tied the game at 91-all, the Vols couldn't get a good look in the final 26 seconds and the game moved to double overtime.

Why Memphis won: Its offense thrived. After an anemic and confused offensive performance in Monday's loss to Michigan, the Tigers relentlessly attacked UT's defense, creating a score of quality interior looks in the process. By the end of the game, the Tigers had shot 36-of-70 from the field -- including a tidy 6-of-9 mark from the 3-point line -- filling it up to the tune of 1.27 points per possession. The Tigers weren't much to look at on the defensive end and they still had their fair share of mistakes all over the floor, but the fluidity of their offense and the ease with which they generated quality opportunities held them together during wave after wave of Volunteers attacks.

Why Tennessee lost: Impatience. Tennessee was at its best when it worked into the teeth of Memphis' defense, generating post opportunities and easy catches for Maymon on the low block. When it got impatient and settled for 3s, it rarely found success. Tennessee shot 7-of-21 from beyond the arc, as Golden and guard Cameron Tatum combined to make just two of their 12 3-point attempts. Even worse, a handful of those misses came late in regulation and overtime, when every possession was crucial. If just a few of those shots had gone down -- or a few of those looks had gone to Maymon in the low block -- this outcome might have been very different.

Star of the game: There were too many to pick just one. For Memphis, the stars came in brotherly form: Will and Antonio Barton combined for 46 points, 16 rebounds and 17-of-28 shooting from the field. Both brothers were impressive. Will is approaching mastery of the midrange game; he slices to the rim and curls off screens to create easy look after easy look. Antonio's shooting (4-of-5 from 3, 8-of-11 from the field) and intelligent work off the ball -- his hand-off wing jumper with 1:16 left in the second overtime was a rare moment of beautiful old-school basketball in this streetfight of a game -- could be major boosts for the Tigers all season.

But the award for the game's best performance has to go to Maymon, who had a borderline legendary day in the Volunteers' interior. Maymon shredded the Tigers' defense time after time; when he didn't catch the ball and score it himself, he worked the offensive glass for an easy putback. Maymon finished with 32 points (8-of-15 from the field, 16-of-17 from the free throw line) and 20 rebounds (nine of which were offensive boards), becoming the first power-six conference player to post a 30-point, 20-rebound game since -- get this -- Blake Griffin. Considering Maymon had never scored more than 14 points or grabbed more than 12 boards in his career, it feels safe to say a star is born.

What it means: Both teams have plenty to improve on. The Tigers seem to have flipped 180 degrees from last season's style, when they were turnover-prone and ugly on offense but tough and rangy on defense. This season, Memphis has to start congealing on defense. The same can be said for Tennessee, which struggled to get stops all afternoon Tuesday, but more important for the Volunteers is getting intelligent play from Golden at the guard spot. Golden can really score, but his decision-making raises serious questions, and his 3-for-19 shooting performance -- and his tendency to force those shots outside the flow of Cuonzo Martin's offense -- was a big reason Tennessee could never overtake the Tigers.

Still, both teams will take away more positives than negatives from this one. Memphis will be encouraged to see its offense achieve this balanced early form, and coach Josh Pastner will be especially thrilled with how well his team took care of the ball. (The Tigers were one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country last season. On Tuesday, they coughed it up just 12 times in 75 possessions.)

And Tennessee fans should be absolutely stoked. After losing their former coach to NCAA scandal, seven seniors to graduation, and Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris to the NBA draft, the Volunteers were supposed to face a daunting rebuilding project this season. Instead, they're discovering that even Bruce Pearl's reserves are talented. Maymon might be one of the best big men in the SEC, while Golden and Tatum -- despite their shooting struggles Tuesday -- clearly are capable of hanging with some of the best talent in the country. Add in Martin's hard-nosed style and the inherent improvements this inexperienced team will make, and it would the appear the Vols are way ahead of that so-called rebuilding schedule.

More observations: Pastner has a lot of weapons, and he might still be figuring out his rotation. For example: Starting guards Joe Jackson and Charles Carmouche played just 19 and 15 minutes, respectively, while reserves Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford played 33 and 37, including almost all of the two overtime periods. Freshman Adonis Thomas didn't start, either, but he played 38 minutes (and scored 19 points on 7-of-10 from the floor). If Pastner wanted to, he probably could run five-man shifts a la Division III novelty Grinnell. Short of that, Pastner's allocation of minutes appears very much in flux. That's a problem -- starters typically want to play starter minutes -- but it's the good kind of problem. Memphis has a deep rotation of viable options, and Pastner has plenty of time in this 2011-12 season to figure out which combination works best.

What’s next: Memphis moves forward in the consolation bracket, where, barring a major shock, it will play Georgetown in the fifth-place game at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday. Unfortunately for Tennessee, the Volunteers now are slated to head to the seventh-place game, in which they likely will play tiny Chaminade at 2:30 p.m. ET Wednesday. Why is that unfortunate? Because the Vols have played well in Maui, first against Duke and then against Memphis, and on those merits, they deserve to head back to the continental United States with more than a win over Chaminade to show for their efforts. Still, anyone who saw this team this week would have to have been impressed. Big things await.