UCF 79, Memphis 72: Tigers stay confident after another road loss

Penny Hardaway said he can see his team making progress with the AAC Tournament right around the corner. Drew Hill, The Commercial Appeal

ORLANDO, Fla. — Still in uniform, Memphis guard Jeremiah Martin stared down an empty hallway inside CFE Arena and had something he needed to admit.

"My head is all over the place right now," Martin said.

In the moments after Memphis’ 79-72 loss at UCF Saturday night, Martin was still frazzled. The Tigers’ senior leader nearly led another late charge to steal a game from the Knights through a series of clutch shots and assists.

Instead, Martin left feeling like he let a win slip away.

"It did get away," Memphis coach Penny Hardaway declared. "For sure."

In the final two minutes, Martin caught a lob pass on an inbounds play and flipped it up for a basket plus the foul. He followed that possession with a wrap-around pass to set up Raynere Thornton to cut the Knights’ lead to just one.

But this time, unlike Memphis’ 20-point blowout of UCF last month, the experienced Knight guards made the necessary plays to win the game.

And while that was enough to keep the Tigers well behind the Knights in contention for a first-round bye in the AAC Tournament, it’s clearly not enough to keep Martin from thinking any different about his team.

"I feel like I’m the best player in this league, I feel like we have the best coach in this league, and I feel like we’re the best team in this league, to be honest," Martin said.

Penny Hardaway sees ‘tide turning’

The senior’s bold statement didn’t bother Hardaway, who is encouraging his team to continue to build confidence, even after another loss.

"I see the tide turning, I see everything switching over," Hardaway said. "I see where we were just trying to do our own thing for a whole season and not buying in, and now, guys are starting to buy in."

Hardaway’s group charged back from a seven-point halftime deficit to take a 41-40 lead with 14:22 remaining.

In the thick of the Tigers’ 12-4 run to start the second half was Martin, of course, who entered on a scoring tear since the start of February. Martin finished with 25 points and six assists, despite shooting just 3-of-10 in the first half.

Memphis assistant coach Mike Miller (left) and head coach Penny Hardaway (right) direct their players during action against UCF in Orlando Saturday, February 16, 2019.

The Knights countered with an 11-0 over the next two minutes, extending their lead to as many as 12 before the final buzzer. UCF junior Aubrey Dawkins hit the critical 3-point shot with under two minutes remaining that helped seal the win.

"We made some mistakes at the end, but we’re getting better at the right time with the (AAC) Tournament right around the corner," Hardaway said.

Preseason AAC Player of the Year B.J. Taylor tied Martin with a game-high 25 points.

Penny Hardaway’s gameplan

Hardaway entered Saturday with a similar gameplan to the Tigers’ win over the Knights last month, and once again decided to go with a bigger starting lineup to match UCF’s size.

Instead of using his usual all-senior starting five of Martin, Kareem Brewton Jr., Kyvon Davenport, Raynere Thornton and Mike Parks Jr., Hardaway inserted 6-foot-10 junior Isaiah Maurice in place of Davenport.

The change initially made an impact on the defensive end, but a flurry of turnovers by the Memphis guards aided a 15-6 UCF run that put the Knights up by double digits in the first half.

Just as Memphis made its run to take back the lead, Martin was whistled for a technical foul for cursing at the UCF bench.

Memphis guard Jeremiah Martin walks off the court during the seconds of a 79-72 loss to UCF in Orlando Saturday, February 16, 2019.

"It was a bonehead play by me and out of character," Martin said. "I just feel like the (official) could have gave it both ways. He gave me a tech for someone that was on the bench, but the bench guy was saying something to me. … I don’t understand how you can get a tech for someone on the bench and it’s not a double-tech."

Antwann Jones’ brief return

After missing the Tigers’ last game with plantar fasciitis, Memphis freshman Antwann Jones returned to play five minutes.

Davenport, the Tigers’ second-leading scorer, left the game with an injury in the first half after landing hard after an alley-oop that was denied by 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall.

The senior returned to the Memphis bench a few minutes later and was able to finish the game.

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