The Golden Hurricane finished the regular season strong, but lost in the American conference quarterfinals to a Memphis buzzer beater.
With the fourth seed and a first-round bye already secured for the conference tournament, the University of Tulsa men’s basketball game didn’t need to win on Sunday against Temple. But on the last home game of Junior Etou, Corey Henderson and Jaleel Wheeler’s careers, the Golden Hurricane opened up the floodgates for a dominant, wire-to-wire victory over the Temple Owls.
Henderson led the way on Senior Night with 21 points, knocking down five three pointers in the process. Martins Igbanu helped make up for a slow day from Etou in the frontcourt, scoring 16 points on 4-5 shooting from the floor and 8-9 from the line. Bolstered by his superb play over the last few games, as well as Sterling Taplin playing limited minutes in his first game back from an ankle injury, Curran Scott played 22 minutes off the bench. He recorded his highest scoring outing of conference play, netting 14 points on 6-9 shooting, as well as a team-high seven rebounds.
The Golden Hurricane could not have started the game off on a more dominant run. Bolstered by a vibrant crowd, Tulsa took advantage of their ice-cold opponents and forced a Temple timeout after a Henderson three-pointer game them a 9-0 lead. Unfortunately for the Owls, it was not enough to get them back on track, as Henderson canned buckets his next three times down the floor, including two threes. His personal 11-0 run completed, Geno Artison, Taplin and Elijah Joiner then got in on the fun by taking the ball inside. When Wheeler, who received the start in place of Lawson Korita, hit a free throw with ten minutes remaining in the half, the scoreboard showed 24-0. A jumper from Owls guard Guinton Rose on the ensuing possession finally quelled the delirious crowd a bit, but the damage was done. Temple’s small run to close out the half made little difference, and TU went into the break up 33-18.
Things looked a little tighter in the second, as Rose scored three quick baskets to cut the lead to single-digits. Unfazed, Tulsa ran its motion offense flawlessly, quick passes and sharp cuts keeping Temple’s versatile defenders on their toes. The lead would hover around 10 until the closing minutes, but the Owls could never quite TU’s zone and get closer. After another late flurry, the buzzer sounded on a 76-58 victory and a happy end to a terrific regular season.
If only things could have carried over that way to the postseason. Facing off against the erstwhile Memphis Tigers, against whom the Golden Hurricane were 1-1 this year, TU needed a win to advance to the American conference semis and earn a chance at the NCAA Tournament. They fought the good fight but succumbed in the end, as the Tigers took the win 67-63 on a ludicrous three-point floater from Kareem Brewton, Jr. with time expiring.
It would be tough to call this an upset, as the teams were mostly evenly matched and went back and forth all game. If anything, despite their lower seed, Memphis looked like the slightly better unit. Center Mike Parks, Jr. had his way down low with the undersized trio of Etou, Igbanu and Artison and the forced double-teams left men open on the perimeter that the Tigers were readily able to exploit. They were exceedingly patient and took possessions deep into the shot clock, refusing to force looks and moving the ball until seams opened up in TU’s matchup zone. Even so, TU had its chances to go up big in the first, as they took eight more shots and five more free throws. It was only from their bricky shooting, 8-27 overall and 0-9 from three, that the Golden Hurricane entered the half trailing 26-25.
Slowly but surely, Memphis pushed their lead, extending it to as many as nine point in the second half, but Tulsa always found a way to answer, whether from a Taplin drive to the paint or a difficult second-chance score from Etou. They would not hit their first triple until the eight-minute mark, but when Henderson finally nailed it, a spot-up look from the top of the arc, he brought the team to within one. Three minutes later, the sharpshooter drained another from the corner to give the Golden Hurricane its first lead of the second half.
Parks put Memphis back in front when he nailed an easy hook over Etou, but after exchanging free throws, TU quickly regained the lead on a Henderson midrange jumper. Just needing one stop to take commanding position in the game, Tulsa instead gave up a deep three-pointer to freshman power forward Kyvon Davenport, who also missed the free throw that would have given him a four-point play and the team a two-point lead. Igbanu then hit one of two foul shots to tie the game, leaving the Tigers’ fate up to Brewton. Taking the ball with fewer than ten seconds left, he dribbled past the light pressure applied by Taplin in the backcourt, made it past halfcourt and lofted a ludicrous running three-point floater from the left wing as the buzzer sounded. Ballgame.
Tulsa finished the game shooting just 2-16 from three and an abysmal 55 percent from the free throw line. Led by Etou’s 12, they managed to out-rebound Memphis both on the offensive boards and overall but tallied just six assists. Henderson, Taplin and Etou scored in double figures, with 20, 14 and 13 respectively.
Obviously, it’s little consolation after the fact, but Golden Hurricane fans should try to take solace in the fact that Brewton’s final shot was absolutely absurd, about the lowest percentage look that he could have possibly taken in that situation. He had plenty of time left to pull up for, you know, an actual jump shot, and he opted for a runner from 25 feet? Who does that?! Regardless, the tragic end shouldn’t put a damper on what has been a fantastic season for TU. Few media outlets had us finishing in the top half of the American Conference (the “Collegian” was an exception, but that is neither here nor there), and after a rough start, our boys proved that they could compete with the best the conference has to offer.
And that’s saying something, because every year the American looks more like a power conference. I’m looking forward to a strong showing from the AAC in the NCAA Tournament. Wichita St. is overrated and has been all year, but I believe Cincinnati and Houston are legitimate threats to make the Elite Eight.
Finally, let’s hope that Elijah Joiner is okay. He went down with what appeared to be a knee injury early in the first half and didn’t reenter the game. Joiner’s reappearance on the bench was a positive sign, but knee injuries can be tricky, and the freshman still has such a bright future ahead of him.