MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis got complacent with a lead, and the lackadaisical approach put the No. 19 Tigers in a tougher situation than expected.
But Will Barton, one of the top recruits in Memphis’ freshman class, showed flashes of what is expected of him and helped put the Tigers back on track in the second half as they defeated Northwestern State 94-79 on Wednesday night.
Memphis will play LSU Sunday afternoon in BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo.
Barton scored 22 points, including restarting the Tiger offense after the Demons (1-2) took the lead with just over 13 minutes left.
“I knew we had fallen behind, and that’s one of the things I relish,” said Barton, a 6-foot-6 guard from Baltimore. “When things are falling apart, or we’re losing, I just want to take over a game. Not just necessarily scoring, but with my leadership, defense and passing the ball and rebounding.”
Wesley Witherspoon led the Tigers (3-0) with 24 points and a career-high 12 rebounds. Witherspoon was 5 of 7 from the field and converted all but one of his 14 free throws as Memphis survived the second-half burst by the Demons.
“We got complacent,” Witherspoon said. “Once we got the lead, we took our foot off the gas, and we can’t do that. It can’t happen. We got happy with the lead, and we let up.”
Will Pratt finished with 23 points, including 14 in the second half for Northwestern State. Devon Baker scored 15 points, while Louis Ellis had 11.
Northwestern State, led by Pratt, really put the pressure on Memphis in the opening minutes of the second half. Pratt had 11 points in the first 5 minutes, to pull the Demons within 61-57. They would continue to rally, eventually outscoring Memphis 19-4 to take their only lead of the game, at 63-61, when Baker scored with 13:11 remaining.
But Barton answered the Demons’ rally with 11 straight Memphis points, erasing the Northwestern State advantage. Memphis eventually rebuilt the lead to double-digits, and didn’t let the visitors get closer than 10 in the final 7:47.
“They are a talented, talented team, and we were playing right with them because we were playing hard, and we played a little bit smarter,” Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy said. “But when we play hard and smart, maybe we won’t be talking about moral victories. Maybe we’ll be talking about victories.”
Memphis took a 57-44 lead into the dressing room with Witherspoon recording 14 points in the half for the Tigers. Memphis was able to shoot 57 percent before the break. The Tigers held a double-digit lead through the final 13 minutes of the half, stretching the advantage to as many as 19.
But, despite holding a dominant advantage on the board, Memphis was hampered by 11 first-half turnovers. And even though Northwestern State had only 12 rebounds in the half, nine of them were on the offensive boards.
That caused Memphis coach Josh Pastner to pound the top of press row so much in frustration that he apologized for his actions after the game.
“We were very undisciplined, and I don’t like that because I like discipline,” Pastner said.
He, like his players, realized that they let the Demons off the deck and made the game more intense in the second half.
“I knew that when we had a team like this down, you have to put them down and not allow them to hang around,” Pastner said, “or they will come back because they had good players and good athletes.”
The Associated Press