KNOXVILLE — If this actually was the last Memphis-Tennessee game for quite some time, both teams made it one to remember.
Joe Jackson scored 20 points and had seven assists Friday night as Memphis built a 21-point lead before hanging on for an 85-80 victory over Tennessee to snap the Volunteers’ four-game winning streak. After trailing 60-39 with 14 minutes left, Tennessee got the lead all the way down to four in the final minute.
Memphis beat Tennessee for the third straight time to match its longest winning streak in the history of this rivalry, whose future remains in question. Memphis also won three straight over Tennessee from 1993-95.
“I don’t think it was really about bragging rights,” Jackson said. “It’s just a very good win. Memphis and Tennessee, that’s a good rivalry game. If you play for Memphis or play for Tennessee, you want to win those games. It’s a feel-good game.”
Adonis Thomas scored 18 points and Geron Johnson added 16 for Memphis (10-3), which survived its first true road contest to win for the eighth time in its last nine games. Jordan McRae scored a career-high 26 points and Josh Richardson added a career-high 20 for Tennessee (8-4).
The contract for this series runs out at the end of the season. Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen and Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart are discussing the possibility of adding future games between the two schools in men’s basketball as well as other sports.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner said earlier this week he didn’t want to continue playing the Vols, but he indicated Thursday night that he and Bowen would re-evaluate the subject once the current contract expires.
“It’s a good way to end the week,” Pastner said after the game. “The good thing is you’re talking about Tiger basketball and there’s no serious controversy that can’t be managed. This can all be managed, I promise. ... It’s not that big a deal in the long run. There’s a lot of good talk about Tiger basketball, and that’s always positive.”
The 19,535 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena showered Pastner with boos when his name was announced during pregame introductions.
That crowd— the most vocal of the season thus far — included new Tennessee football coach Butch Jones and former Jim Thorpe Award-winning defensive back Eric Berry. But the Vols wouldn’t give them much reason to cheer for much of the night.
Memphis shot 56.4 percent (31 of 55) against a Tennessee defense that hadn’t allowed any of its previous opponents to make over half their shots. The Tigers also shot 63.6 percent (7 of 11) from 3-point range against the Vols, who were ranked sixth nationally in 3-point percentage defense (.250).
Tennessee hadn’t allowed any of its first 11 opponents to score as many as 70 points/
“We didn’t expect them to shoot as well as they did,” said Tennessee forward and Memphis native Jarnell Stokes, who had 11 points and nine rebounds. “Their percentages didn’t match up to how they played today. Their season percentages, player by player, they shot five times better than they usually shoot.”
Perhaps nobody came up bigger in that regard than Johnson.
The 6-foot-3 junior guard entered the night shooting 29.2 percent (7 of 24) from 3-point range, but he went 2 of 3 from beyond the arc Friday. Johnson made arguably the biggest shot of the game with 4:46 remaining when he sank a 3-pointer from in front of the Memphis bench after Tennessee had cut the lead to five.
“I told him in the locker room he saved us,” Jackson said.
For most of the night, it didn’t seem the Tigers would need someone to make a big shot late in the game.
Memphis never trailed in the first half and owned a 42-28 lead at the intermission by doing pretty much whatever it wanted offensively. In the meantime, Tennessee’s offense continued its season-long habit of slow starts by shooting 27.6 percent (8 of 29) overall and 12.5 percent (1 of 8) from 3-point range in the first half.
Tennessee has struggled to get its offense going this season without injured forward Jeronne Maymon, who hasn’t played since having a preseason setback in his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery. A decision is expected soon on whether Maymon will return this season.
“We will have a decision for you guys no later than Monday,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.
Memphis seemed on the verge of a runaway early in the second half before McRae got Tennessee back into the game. McRae scored 21 points and shot 4 of 8 from 3-point range in the second half.
“I just felt like we needed somebody on the offensive end to step up,” McRae said. “If one person does it, somebody else follows. I think that happened for us.”
Tennessee had shown its ability to rally Saturday by erasing a 10-point, second-half deficit in a 51-47 victory over Xavier. Memphis had blown big leads before, as it lost 87-78 to Louisville on Dec. 15 after leading by 16 points.
This time, Tennessee had dug itself too deep a hole while Memphis showed it had learned its lesson. Although the Vols got the lead down to five points with five minutes left and had the margin down to four, at 79-75 with 46 seconds to go, Memphis hung tough down the stretch.
“We’ve just got to stay the course and stay positive,” Pastner said. “We did that and came out with a win.”