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What we learned in Memphis basketball's opening win over Saint Mary's at Crossover Classic

Commercial Appeal Memphis logo Commercial Appeal Memphis 11/25/2020 Jason Munz, Memphis Commercial Appeal
a group of people playing a game of football: Memphis' Boogie Ellis drives to the basket against a Saint Mary's defender Wednesday during the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. © Richard Carlson/Inertia Memphis' Boogie Ellis drives to the basket against a Saint Mary's defender Wednesday during the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Like a freight train on a tight schedule, Boogie Ellis and Memphis basketball steamrolled over Saint Mary’s in the season opener for both teams Wednesday.

The Tigers came out slow at the Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, falling into an early 8-0 hole. But they stormed back with a huge first-half surge in a 73-56 victory.

Ellis, a sophomore guard, came off the bench to lead Memphis with a career-high 24 points, going 6-of-7 from the 3-point line. The Tigers advance to face the winner of the Western Kentucky-Northern Iowa game at 11 a.m. Thursday.

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"For this being our first game out of the gate, (it) was a pretty special game because we didn't do everything perfect," Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. "But we played really hard. Played for each other. Did some great things out there and ended up beating a really good team." 

Virginia Tech transfer Landers Nolley II added 11 points in his Tigers debut, while Damion Baugh and Moussa Cisse contributed 10 apiece. 

Here are five takeaways from Memphis’ win.

Excellent Boogie Ellis

Ellis shared a simple message via Twitter hours before tip-off Wednesday: “Pain.”

If the San Diego native was feeling any, he didn’t show it. After being summoned by Hardaway less than three minutes in, Ellis responded by scoring the Tigers’ first six points.

He was especially good from deep, where he was 5-of-5 in the first half. Included among those early triples was a buzzer-beater from just inside the half-court line that put Memphis up 43-26. That performance was an encouraging sign for Ellis, who struggled at times there as a freshman. Last season, he made 36 three-pointers and shot 32.4% from long range.

Ellis said his brief pregame statement was nothing more than a reminder of how he did not want to feel as bad as his performance last season made him feel. 

"Coming into the game, I just embraced my role," he said. "Coach was telling me, great players impact the game no matter if they're starting or coming off the bench. So, I just played basketball and hooped." 

Ellis even drew praise from reigning NBA Rookie of the Year and Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant. 

"@BoogieEllis showing why he was a top player in his class rn," Morant tweeted. 

Defensive stand sparks turnaround

The Tigers were a dominant defensive team last season, finishing No. 1 in field goal percentage defense.

Memphis picked up right where it left off. The most pivotal stretch saw Memphis hold Saint Mary’s to 1-of-16 shooting over an eight-plus minute span. The Tigers hauled in 14 rebounds during that stretch, blocked two shots and forced multiple turnovers.

For the game, the Gaels shot 33.9% from the field and were 1-for-18 from the 3-point line.

"We just knew we had to lock up and get easy buckets," said Baugh, who came off the bench and contributed five rebounds, a pair of steals and zero turnovers. 

Defense sparks offense

While Saint Mary’s couldn’t buy a bucket, the Tigers turned white hot. Just how Hardaway drew it up. 

"That's what we preach to the guys," he said. "I mean, when Damion and those guys came off the bench — and Boogie — the pressure went up. That's the type of stifling defense that we want. And then, we want to get out and score."

Starting with an Ellis jumper that put Memphis up 17-14, the Tigers surged into the half hitting 17-of-21 from the field to close things out. No surprise, Ellis was the standout, scoring 14 of his points during that span.

Ball security?

The Tigers attributed much of their struggles last season to an inability to avoid turnovers, averaging 16.5.

In the first half, Memphis was much improved, committing only three. The Tigers finished with 10.

A new day in the frontcourt?

Memphis’ frontcourt last season was essentially limited to Precious Achiuwa, recently drafted 20th overall by the Miami Heat.

The Tigers showed some encouraging signs Wednesday, despite missing forwards Ahmad Rand (contact tracing) and DeAndre Williams (waiting on NCAA’s ruling on transfer waiver request).

Cisse, a five-star freshman center, added seven rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes. Sophomore Malcolm Dandridge came up with a pair of blocks in nine minutes and Lance Thomas had eight points and three rebounds. D.J. Jeffries led the way on the boards with nine.

"For a high school player who reclassified up to come to college early ... it was pretty doggone good," Hardaway said of Cisse's debut. "It was choppy because of the pick-and-roll defense, he got confused a little bit. But that's a win-win for us — 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. And, he was nervous, so he's only going to get better every game."

Reach sports writer Jason Munz at jason.munz@commercialappeal.com or on Twitter @munzly.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: What we learned in Memphis basketball's opening win over Saint Mary's at Crossover Classic

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