When D.J. Stephens is dunking and blocking shots, Memphis looks like a team that could make an extended run in this NCAA tournament.
Then, the Tigers start missing free throws and turning the ball over — and suddenly no lead seems safe.
"It's the NCAA tournament. Things like that happen," coach Josh Pastner said. "We just missed some free throws down the stretch and they made some great 3s, but I was totally at peace."
Memphis held on when Matthew Dellavedova's 3-pointer from the right wing sailed long as time expired. The sixth-seeded Tigers beat 11th-seeded Saint Mary's 54-52 on Thursday despite nearly blowing a five-point lead in the last few seconds.
Memphis (31-4) now moves on to face Michigan State on Saturday. The third-seeded Spartans beat 14th-seeded Valparaiso 65-54. In the night session, fourth-seeded Michigan beat 13th-seeded South Dakota State 71-56, and fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth routed 12th-seeded Akron 88-42.
Memphis led by 15 in the first half, but nearly gave the game away at the end. Memphis led 54-49 after Stephens made only one of two free throws. Eividas Petrulis banked in a 3-pointer for Saint Mary's with 3.1 seconds to play, and the Tigers then lost the ball when the Gaels' Jordan Giusti deflected the inbound pass off Joe Jackson of Memphis and out of bounds.
Saint Mary's (28-7) was out of timeouts, but had a chance to regroup while officials reviewed the previous sequence. The extra time didn't matter. Dellavedova, the career scoring leader for Saint Mary's, was able to get a shot off, but it missed everything.
"Wish he would have hit that last shot, and so does he," coach Randy Bennett said. "Matt wasn't the problem at all. Matt was the solution. Matt was why we had a chance at the end."
It was the first win in the NCAA tournament for Memphis since 2009, when John Calipari was still coach.
Stephens had nine points and eight blocks for Memphis, and Jackson had 14 points and seven assists. Memphis finished with 12 blocks. Saint Mary's had none.
The Tigers also went 9 of 18 from the free-throw line.
That was the only really dramatic game of the day in Auburn Hills. In the other Midwest Regional matchup, Valpo (26-8) had enough size to match up with Michigan State, but not enough strength.
Derrick Nix had 23 points and a career-high 15 rebounds to help power the Spartans to a win. Michigan State (26-8) went on a 26-5 run in the first half to take control.
"Michigan State's a great basketball team. They've got a lot of good players," Pastner said. "They do a great job, and we're going to need all of our guys to play well on Saturday."
Michigan is also playing in its home state, and the Wolverines (27-7) overcame a tough night for star point guard Trey Burke, who was held to only six points. South Dakota State (25-10) couldn't take advantage of Burke's struggles. Jackrabbits guard Nate Wolters only scored 10 points.
Glenn Robinson III scored 21 points and Mitch McGary added 13 points and nine rebounds for Michigan. The Wolverines move on in the South Regional to take on VCU in what should be a fascinating matchup Saturday.
"My confidence has always been there, but tonight the ball just felt right coming out of my hand," said Robinson, the son of the former Purdue star with the same name. "It hasn't felt like that for a while, but when I started hitting shots, my teammates went right back to me. That's the way this team plays. Even when Trey isn't hitting shots, he's making passes and getting us open shots."
VCU (27-8) was all over Akron (26-7) from the start in the most lopsided victory by a fifth-seeded team over a No. 12 in NCAA tournament history. Troy Daniels had 23 points and Juvonte Reddic scored 21.
Akron was seriously short-handed, and it showed. In addition to playing without suspended point guard Alex Abreu, the Zips had other problems as well. Starting guard Brian Walsh and reserve center Pat Forsythe were limited by the flu, and reserve guard Deji Ibitayo wasn't even in uniform because of back spasms.
"On top of everything else, we have one guy hurt his back and two guys with the flu," Akron forward Nick Harney said. "But we weren't the only team that had to deal with adversity. There were other teams here that overcame things and won. You have to play the hand you are dealt."