Memphis makes an American statement

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Memphis and Louisville are old rivals, dating back to their days as league partners in the Missouri Valley, Metro and Conference USA.

For one more year, they're playing together in the same conference. And on Thursday night, Memphis showed that the Cardinals aren't simply going to roll through the American Athletic without some company.

The defending national champions were the overwhelming choice to run away with the American title this year before moving on to the ACC. But the No. 24 Tigers beat No. 12 Louisville 73-67 at the Cardinals’ own game and on their own court while proving there's more than one contender in this league.

If you needed any proof that this was an important win for the Tigers, you only had to look at head coach Josh Pastner after the buzzer sounded. Pastner pumped his fist and shot back at some Louisville fans in the KFC Yum! Center crowd who he said had been ripping his team's academic prowess. Pastner said later that's all part of the rivalry, one in which the Cardinals had won four straight dating back to 2005.

"It's a big win for the University of Memphis, because since I've been here, we haven't beaten 'em," senior guard Joe Jackson said. "We always had a chance, but we let it slip away."

Not on this night, even after Louisville went up 64-59 after a Montrezl Harrell dunk with 3 minutes, 50 seconds left. Memphis needed only 37 seconds to tie the game back up, and it would score the final seven points of the game.

Rather than hoist up quick 3-pointers after falling behind, Pastner's team stuck to the game plan, which was to attack the rim and pierce Louisville's soft interior. It was a lesson learned painfully last Saturday against Cincinnati, when the Tigers lost 69-53 -- their worst conference defeat in 15 years -- while settling for jumpers and going 2-for-17 from the 3-point line.

Their final 19 points on Thursday night all came on layups, dunks and free throws.

"That's all we talk about -- going downhill, driving the ball and attacking the rim," said Jackson, who scored 15 points. "That's basically the best part of the game. You don't win by taking jump shots; you win from attacking the basket and finishing and making a free throw."

The Tigers said they developed poise and toughness earlier this season in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., where they fought back from a deficit to beat LSU and then defeated Oklahoma State in a rematch from a loss 12 days earlier. They also took Florida to the wire before falling by two last month in the Jimmy V Classic.

"That shows how this team can face adversity," forward Shaq Goodwin said. "We had a couple of battle-tested games, and we ended up coming out with wins."

If only Louisville could say the same thing. The Cardinals' lofty ranking was once again exposed as fool's gold based on their feasting on inferior competition; they entered the night with the No. 269 schedule by strength in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy. In their only tests this season against ranked opponents -- versus North Carolina and at Kentucky -- they lost each decisively. Since Memphis is the only other American Athletic team currently ranked, Thursday night offered Rick Pitino's team one of its few remaining chances for a quality win.

Yet even with 2013 Final Four MVP Luke Hancock finally getting untracked -- he scored 20 points for the first time since the title-game win over Michigan last April -- the Cardinals suffered the same problems that have plagued them in big games this season.

Other than a solid performance from Harrell, who scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, the Louisville frontcourt contributed almost nothing. Memphis held a 42-34 advantage in the paint, and its guards made better decisions and more plays down the stretch than the Cardinals' backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones, the latter of whom bricked through a 1-of-9 shooting night against his hometown team.

Most tellingly, the Tigers shot 50.9 percent from the field against a team that has long prided itself on defense under Pitino.

"We got confused a couple of times with the game on the line with what defense we were in," Pitino said. "We didn't get confused one time last year. I don't know what's so difficult about it. We only played two."

Pitino, whose team fell to 2-1 early on in American Athletic play, later added that "this is a much tougher league than all of us anticipated." Memphis, which will host Louisville on March 1, aims to make sure that is true.

"We made a statement tonight," senior guard Geron Johnson said, "but we're going to see those guys who knows how many more times. A guaranteed one more time, and then maybe in the conference tournament. So, it's not over."

These two old rivals still have one heated more conference race between them.