Tigers fall short against top-seeded Cougars in conference semifinals

(Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Jeremiah Martin scored a game-high 23 points to lead the University of Memphis, but the Tigers were knocked out of the American Athletic Conference Championship Saturday with a 61-58 semifinal loss to nationally ranked Houston.

Playing before a loud, supportive crowd at FedExForum, the Tigers (21-13) battled to the final possession despite shooting a season-low 23.5 percent against one of the nation’s premier defensive teams. The Tigers had two 3-point tries in final 20 seconds, one by Martin and another by Tyler Harris, but missed both.

Houston, ranked 11th nationally, advanced to Sunday’s 2:15 p.m. championship game against No. 2 seed Cincinnati. Memphis lost in the tournament semifinals for the second straight season.

“Overall, I’m still proud of our guys for fighting and staying in the game,” Tigers coach Penny Hardaway said. “We fought hard.”

Houston (31-2) held Memphis to season-low totals in points (58) and field goals made (16). The Cougars never trailed in the game after taking a 4-3 lead with 17:41 to go in the first half, but had to survive a closing 10-1 run by the Tigers to advance.

“You have to give (Houston) credit because they played so hard, but we missed some open looks as well,” Hardaway said.

Corey Davis Jr., a unanimous first-team all-conference selection like Martin, led the Cougars with 17 points. Martin nearly finished with a double-double as he grabbed nine rebounds. No other Tiger but Martin scored in double figures.

Despite falling behind by 14 (57-43) midway through the second half, the Tigers kept fighting back. A tip-in by Raynere Thornton with about four minutes left cut the Houston lead to nine points (61-52). A Thornton put-back of an Antwann Jones miss two minutes later cut the deficit to six (61-56), the closest the Tigers had been since the opening two possessions of the second half.

The Tigers’ final points — and the game’s final points — came a minute later on another aggressive Martin drive to the basket for a layup. That cut the lead to three points with 1:11 to go.

Martin had a good look on his 3-point try with 20 seconds remaining, but misfired. He finished 5-of-24 shooting. Twelve of his points came from the free throw line.

“I thought I was going to make it,” Martin said of his 3-point try to tie the game with 20 seconds left. “But I didn’t have a good shooting (day). I didn’t shoot well the whole tournament.”

At the half, Houston led, 36-26, behind a nationally regarded defense that limited the Tigers to 23 percent shooting. Memphis struggled inside against the Cougars, whose defense ranks 10th nationally. The Tigers missed 11 of their final 12 shots.

Martin and Brewton combined to go 4-for-18 in the opening half.

Memphis fell behind by double-digits (19-8) early in the first half and had a difficult time putting together runs against the Bearcats. The Tigers briefly cut the margin to six points (24-18) after a bank shot from Kareem Brewton Jr. and a tip-in by Kyvon Davenport.

But the Cougars were able to push their advantage back to 13 points (32-19) late in the opening half after Cedrick Alley Jr. scored inside with two minutes to go.

The Tigers will await a likely invitation to the NIT tournament Sunday night following the NCAA Selection Show.

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