TULSA, Okla. – When Memphis coach Josh Pastner first presented the idea, Chris Crawford wasn't immediately sold on moving from the starting lineup to the bench.
With the NCAA tournament right around the corner, he's showing just how dangerous he can be no matter his role.
Crawford set career-highs with 24 points and six 3-pointers, Adonis Thomas scored 17 points and the 20th-ranked Tigers beat Tulane 81-68 Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament.
It was the second straight game and third time in the last four that Crawford put up his new best scoring total of the season. He's averaging 19.5 points over the last four games, after scoring 8.3 per game in the first 24.
"When he first told me, I was looking at him like he was crazy. I wasn't feeling it at first," Crawford said. "But I'm a team guy, so I was willing to sacrifice for my teammates. I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to win.
"We're an unselfish team. That's just me being unselfish as a teammate and knowing that I've got my guys' backs."
The top-seeded Tigers (28-4) took control by scoring the final 14 points of the first half, with Crawford hitting a pair of 3-pointers and then soaring for a right-handed dunk on a fast break to finish it off and make it 44-27. D.J. Stephens also had a two-handed slam and a putback during the big burst.
Crawford made five of his seven 3-point tries in the first half, and eighth-seeded Tulane (19-14) could never get closer than 10 after that.
"Chris has learned that he is an energy guy. He is at his best when he is positive energy," Pastner said. "He's not a focus guy because he is so cerebral as a player. He is an energy guy, and when he is positive energy, it is contagious, it radiates, it's enthusiastic throughout our whole team and it makes his individual play that much better.
"I'm so proud of Chris with his positive energy. That's why he's at a high level right now — a very, very high level."
Josh Davis had 21 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Green Wave, and Jordan Callahan chipped in 18 points. Callahan also tied Michael Christian's school record, set in 1989-90, with 77 3-pointers on the season.
Memphis, trying to win its seventh Conference USA tournament in eight years, won its 22nd straight game in the series between the two teams and will face fifth-seeded Tulsa in the semifinals Friday.
"Their depth and their ability and the energy they play with, they can explode on you in those 3-minute and 4-minute runs. That's what they really did to us at the end of the first half," Tulane coach Ed Conroy said. "We've been close with them all three years that we've played them and had leads in second half. I this team can explode on you as quick as any of the teams that we've seen because of their depth."
Tulane strung together eight straight points to close the deficit to 48-38 after Kendall Timmons' free throw with 15:47 left, but Memphis answered right away with its own 10-2 burst. Crawford hit another 3-pointer and then two free throws after getting fouled on another 3-point shot, and Geron Johnson's 3 restored the lead to 58-40.
Crawford, chosen the league's top reserve in voting by the coaches, was stuck on 22 points — one shy of his previous career best — until Johnson passed up an open layup on a fast break in the final minute to instead set up a two-handed slam by Crawford.
"I thought we did some good things making it tough for them to score inside, and he was the guy that really gave them that 3-point threat and stretched our defense and knocked them down at a high rate," Conroy said.
Joe Jackson added 15 points for Memphis. The Tigers have never lost a Conference USA tournament game as the top seed, sweeping their way to the title each year from 2006 to 2009 and then again last year. Memphis also won the 2011 tournament as the No. 4 seed.
The win prevented a repeat of 2010, the last time the conference tournament was played in Tulsa. That year, the second-seeded Tigers were upset in the first round by eventual champion Houston.
"It's just good to get that first one," Pastner said. "At this time of the year, it's just win, baby win, survive and advance."
The Green Wave were able to sustain Memphis' opening barrage of 3-pointers and dunks and keep it close for about 14 minutes before the well ran dry against the Tigers' defense. Davis' three-point play off a drive to the basket got Tulane within 28-25 with 7:06 left in the first half, but the Green Wave didn't make another basket the rest of the half.
Louis Dabney hit two free throws with 5:59 to go before halftime, and Memphis didn't allow another point before the break. Stephens blocked Ricky Tarrant's shot in the lane to set the tone, and the Tigers forced two shot-clock violations in the final 5 minutes of the half.
Tulane had 13 turnovers — already over its average of 12.2 per game — by halftime and finished with 15.