MEMPHIS, Tenn. – While Memphis is trying to find its way to better execution, the No. 17 Tigers are still managing to get wins.
Adonis Thomas scored 16 points, while Antonio Barton added 14 points and Memphis escaped with a 65-54 victory over Samford on Saturday night in an opening game of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament.
Joe Jackson added 13 points, four assists and three steals for Memphis (2-0), but it took the Tigers connecting on all eight of their free throws in the final minute to finally grab the victory as Memphis was taken out of its normal up-tempo game.
"I was disappointed in our lack of everything," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "I thought we played slow. I thought we were really slow. I thought we were slow in all areas. We were slow offensively and defensively. ... Our pace wasn't good."
Tim Williams led the Bulldogs (1-3) with 21 points and six rebounds, connecting on 7 of 11 shots. Raijon Kelly added 12 points on 4 of 6 shooting and five assists.
Samford was within 54-51 with 4:21 left, but Memphis' free throw shooting in the final minute made the difference.
"I'm not into moral victories; never have, never will," first-year Samford coach Bennie Seltzer said. "Those guys in that locker room are very disappointed, and they should be. They are extremely disappointed because we felt like we let one slip away."
The Tigers, who struggled to create any buffer from the Bulldogs in the first half, seemed to take control of the game, building a 54-42 lead with just over 9 minutes left when Thomas converted two free throws.
But Samford answered with nine straight points — four from Williams and five from Connor Miller (nine points) to get within three points.
Jackson split a pair of free throws for Memphis, then Thomas scored four straight points, the last two starting the final run of free throws to preserve Tigers' win.
"As a coach, I'm proud of their effort," Seltzer said. "I thought we played hard, but we're supposed to."
Memphis carried a 33-24 lead into halftime, primarily by protecting the basketball. The Tigers had only one turnover compared to 10 for Samford.
That offset the Bulldogs' shooting 53 percent for the half. The Samford offense was focused primarily on Williams, who had nine points in the half, missing only one of his five shots.
Memphis initially did do a better job of controlling the freshman forward after he scored the Bulldogs' first two baskets, recording all of Samford's first five points.
Barton had eight points to lead Memphis in the half.
"We started out a little slow," said Barton, who provided a spark off the bench. "We've got to start off the game better with more intensity and more patience."
Samford, which lost to No. 2 Louisville 80-54 on Thursday, stayed close to the Tigers midway through the half.
Only a 10-4 spurt provided a buffer for Memphis in the first half. The Bulldogs have not defeated a ranked opponent since a victory over St. John's, which was No. 15, when Samford defeated them on Nov. 19, 1999.
The Tigers never led by more than nine in the half.
Pastner continually talked about how his team was unable to get untracked and run in transition, a style which suits the Tigers best. Instead, Samford dictated the pace much of the game.
"We are not a team that needs to play slow with our speed and athleticism," Pastner said. "We were slow, and our guard play has to be better. I don't want to come down and run set plays. I want to get into the flow and pace."
And as Memphis has done in previous seasons, they are struggling early, heading into Thursday's game against VCU at Nassau in The Bahamas.
"I promise you we haven't peaked," Pastner said. "And I promise, we are not going into the game on Thursday being cocky or anything. I can promise you that. This will give us an opportunity to teach. We've got to be better than what we played (Saturday)".