ORLANDO, Fla. — Cincinnati players said they were well aware that Memphis guard Jamal Johnson could fill up a basketball hoop. Fortunately for the No. 8 Bearcats, they finally figured out a way to stop him from doing so Saturday.
The Bearcats were sleeping on Johnson a little bit in the early going and his first-half 3-pointers boosted Memphis to a double-digit lead by halftime. Challenged at halftime by head coach Mick Cronin, Cincinnati came out on a defensive mission in the second and the Bearcats limited Memphis to just five field goals in the final 20 minutes, rallying past the Tigers, 70-60, in a semifinal game of the American Athletic Conference Tournament at Amway Center.
The victory puts Cincinnati (29-4) in Sunday’s championship game opposite Houston, which held on to beat Wichita State.
“Well, it was a tale of two halves. We really played great the first half and really, because of Cincinnati’s intensity in the second half, we just didn’t seem to match it,” Memphis coach Tubby Smith said.
Led by Johnson, Memphis was blistering the nets in that first half on offense and matching Cincinnati’s power game on defense. The Tigers hit 52 percent of their floor shots (14 of 27) in the first half with Johnson going 5 of 5 for 17 points by the break.
“When you let a guy like that just get comfortable, the rim gets bigger and he lit it up,” Cincinnati forward and AAC player of the year Gray Clark said. “So second half we just tried to adjust, not let him get comfortable looks and play together … don’t back away from him at all; make it a harder shot.”
Not only was Memphis (21-13) rolling along offensively, but they were taking a cue from Cincinnati in getting physical underneath the basket. Memphis outrebounded Cincinnati 18-13 in the first half and the Bearcats missed 18 shots on offense (12 of 30) before the intermission.
The game was quite physical early. Memphis forward Jamarion Rivers had to go to the locker room after crashing to the floor just two minutes into the game and he did not return after injuring his back. He had gone up for a dunk but appeared to pin the ball on the rim and went down hard, hitting his head on the floor. On the replay, no Cincinnati defenders appeared to come in contact with Rivers, whose momentum caused him to come down awkwardly.
Memphis coach Tubby Smith, however, saw it differently and was livid after the play, baffled by the lack of a foul call. He yelled at the officiating crew at one point saying, “Y’all are getting paid for this.”
Smith was equally livid later in the first half after what he thought was an elbow thrown by Cincinnati’s AAC player of the year Gary Clark. Replays however showed the elbow to be incidental. Officials again went to the replay later in the half to check a possible flagrant elbow during a foul on Memphis forward Mike Parks Jr., but that was ruled as a common foul.
It was a different story in the second half and there wasn’t much help Smith could muster from the referees as Cincinnati just took it to the Memphis defense.
“Memphis played really well. They have won seven of their last eight. They made some really hard shots in the first half,” Cronin said. “Sure, we don’t want to ever come out, and the scouting report says Jamal Johnson’s a great shooter and he’s 4 for 4 and it’s a little late when you let a guy get going like and you dig yourself holes it’s hard to dig out of. … the first half, sure I’m upset about things but Memphis played great and I think it’s wrong to say anything else.
“Obviously (at halftime) I said we might not want to let Jamal Johnson keep teeing it up, and thinking he’s going to miss. I mean Jacob (Evans) was all over him to start the second half and his miss went halfway down and out. … When a guy’s on fire like that, you can make the adjustment, not let him shoot or you can let him shoot you out of the tournament and you go home tonight.”
Johnson only took four more shots the rest of the game, missing all of them as Cincinnati made its decisive run. Cincy started the second half on an 11-0 run, increased that to 21-2 and outscored Memphis 41-18 in the final 20 minutes.
Jarron Cumberland, who didn’t score in the Bearcats quarterfinal victory over SMU, had a game-high 18 points and also dished out five assists. Clark finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
There has been speculation all week that this might be Smith’s last game as Memphis head coach. His answer to the question after the game was short.
“Who knows?” he said.