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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Memphis celebrated its return to the Top 25 by blowing out one of its closest opponents in Conference USA.
Joe Jackson had 21 points and 10 assists, four other Memphis players scored in double figures and the 22nd-ranked Tigers beat Central Florida 93-71 on Wednesday night for their 15th straight victory.
"We're just trying to play hard and beat every team in the conference," Jackson said. "That's the goal. Trying to prepare for them the right way and do the right things to win. That's all we try to do."
Jackson was 10 of 12 from the field, hitting his only 3-pointer. Geron Johnson had 19 points, nine rebounds and eight assists for Memphis (21-3, 10-0 Conference USA), while Adonis Thomas added 17 points. Chris Crawford and D.J. Stephens scored 10 points apiece, with Stephens hitting all four of his shots.
Memphis entered the Top 25 this week for the first time since Nov. 19 and was riding its winning streak to lead the conference standings. UCF entered the game in second place tied with Southern Mississippi, two games behind the Tigers.
But few of the Tigers would even say they were making a statement by their dominance over UCF. Most said they were only interested in continuing the winning streak and, while aware of the ranking, they were not concentrating on it.
"It's a great accomplishment," Crawford said. "We worked hard to get there, and we're going do our best to stay there and keep winning."
Johnson noted that many don't think the Tigers have a quality win, and they are hindered by a reputation that Conference USA is a weak league.
"If they say we haven't beaten anybody, we haven't beaten anybody," Johnson said. "I go with politics, too. I don't mind if they take us out of the Top 25. You're going to see us in March. We'll make our name there."
Isaiah Sykes led the Knights (17-7, 7-3) with 17 points and six rebounds, but also committed nine turnovers. Daiquan Walker finished with 14 points, missing only one of his six shots. Tristan Spurlock had 11 points but Keith Clanton, UCF's leading scorer at 16 points per game, was limited to 10 on 3-of-10 shooting from the field
Memphis put the game out of reach in the first 13 minutes of the second half, highlighted by a 21-1 run that featured 3-point shooting, strong defense and fast-break layups.
"They're a team that, when they get going, they're pretty difficult to change," UCF coach Donnie Jones said. "We just have to find a way to chip away, but Memphis is good. They're very explosive and very talented."
The 18 assists from Jackson and Johnson contributed to the Tigers handing out 28 assists on 38 field goals.
The Tigers took the first double-digit lead of the game in the early stages of the second half, opening with a 9-2 run. Thomas had nine points in the half before the 15-minute mark. Sykes had all six of UCF's points during that stretch.
Near the 13-minute mark, Memphis began converting from outside the arc. Crawford connected on consecutive 3-pointers, and Johnson added a third to stretch the Memphis lead to 67-49 with 11:36 left.
And the lead just kept growing, as Memphis eventually crafted a 21-1 run for a 78-50 lead with 8 minutes left.
A 3-pointer by Clanton stopped the rally, the first field goal from the Knights in about 6 minutes, but UCF never got close after the Memphis rally.
Memphis finished with 27 fast-break points, part of the 30 they scored off UCF's 18 turnovers. Memphis also recorded five blocks. The Tigers hit 20 of 31 shots for 64.5 percent in the second half.
"We mixed some things up, and I thought we controlled the tempo," Jones said, "but we can't give up 40-some points in transition off turnovers and blocks. That's what we talked about, and we weren't able to do the things we needed to in the second half."
The Tigers led 42-36 at halftime.
Both teams shot well in the first half, with different offensive approaches. The Tigers were at 53 percent with a 28-12 advantage in the paint. UCF shot 52 percent, making five of 10 shots from outside the arc.
A lot of those inside points for Memphis came from Stephens, who hit all four of his shots in the half and had 10 points. Meanwhile, Johnson had 12 points for the Tigers, including the only 3-pointer for Memphis out of six long-range shots.
Spurlock had 10 points for the Knights. Walker and Sykes were a combined 6 of 7 from the field. That offset Clanton missing four of five shots in the half.
Then the second half started and the Tigers pulled away quickly.
"We continue to play at a high level," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "To win 15 straight is not easy. It's not a birthright. It's not a birthright to continue to have 20-win seasons. It's not a birthright to continue to get double-digit victories in conference play.
"Right now, guys are playing well."