MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Memphis coach Josh Pastner credits defense and the growing maturity of his young team for the Tigers' ability to survive close games.
And now they lead Conference USA.
Will Barton scored 17 points, Joe Jackson added 12 and Memphis earned its 11th straight win over Alabama-Birmingham with a 62-58 victory on Wednesday night.
The victory, coupled with Texas El-Paso losing 64-51 at Southern Mississippi moved the Tigers (20-6, 8-3 Conference USA) into first place in the conference.
Memphis is now 13-2 in games decided by single-digits this season, including winning 76-73 in overtime at UAB on Jan. 22. The Tigers entered Wednesday's game leading C-USA in defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 40.5 percent.
"For us to be able to win these close games is a tremendous credit to the players," Pastner said. "The bottom line is defense. We're defending now. That's the difference. You've got to hang your hat on defense. I'm a big believer in that."
Memphis held the Blazers to 36 percent from the field (20 of 56). UAB has not won a game in the series since March 2, 2006, and has not won in Memphis in 12 years.
Charles Carmouche finished with 10 points for the Tigers, who held on down the stretch despite hitting only 4 of 7 free throws in the final 43.9 seconds.
Ovie Soko led the Blazers (18-7, 8-4) with 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Aaron Johnson and Anthony Criswell had 12 points apiece. Johnson, who is second in the nation in assists at 7.5 per game, had 10 assists for UAB.
Criswell's point total was a career-high as he hit all five of his shots in the game and also grabbed eight rebounds.
"I thought Anthony did a terrific job," UAB coach Mike Davis said. "He did more than we expected offensively for sure. Way more."
The Blazers needed that kind of production from Criswell and Soko, as they played their second game without junior forward Cameron Moore, the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, who broke his left (non-shooting) hand in practice last Friday.
The absence wasn't obvious. In addition to the offensive production, UAB outrebounded Memphis 37-29.
"No one really cares about Cam being injured," Davis said. "When it goes across the ticker, it's not going say Cameron Moore didn't play. It's going to say UAB 58, Memphis 62. We can't make any excuses. We can't try to spin it."
The teams stayed close throughout the game, neither team holding a lead of more than seven points. There were 14 lead changes and five ties.
"They just never let up," Barton said. "UAB is a tough team. They play good defense, and they have a lot of discipline. I knew it was going to be this type of game."
Memphis carried a 28-24 lead into the break when Barton's 3-pointer from the corner rattled around before dropping through with 1 second left in the half.
Barton led Tiger scorers with 10 points, while Criswell had six points for the Blazers in the opening half. Johnson had five of UAB's six assists at intermission.
Neither team shot particularly well in the half, UAB hitting 38 percent (9 of 24), while Memphis was not much better at 44 percent (11 of 25).
Memphis was leading 23-18 after Jackson's layup with 6:16 left in the half, but UAB hit a pair of 3-pointers to retake the lead.
Memphis could have extended the advantage before the half, but muffed several shots at the rim. D.J. Stephens mishandled a breakaway as he was headed for a dunk, then the Tigers missed a trio of shots inside.
"The shots we missed at the rim, we just missed them," Barton said. "The bigs have got to convert those layups. Those are just easy points that we were just giving away. If we had made those, the game wouldn't have been that close."
UAB came out with more intensity after the break, connecting from beyond the arc on three of its first four shots. That was part of a 16-2 rally, capped by Soko's inside basket for a 40-33 lead.
Memphis responded with a 16-4 run to erase that advantage.
UAB would get within one possession on a couple of occasions in the final minutes, but Memphis never relinquished the lead.
"As a coach, I did a poor job of clock management," Davis said. "We just made some really bad errors down the stretch."
And that allowed Memphis to hold on for another close win and move atop the conference standings.
"There is no such thing as a bad win, no matter how it looks," Pastner said. "Winning is fun. Winning is great, and we just beat a good team."
The Associated Press News Service
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