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Louisville rallies in Memphis to keep Pastner winless against Top 25

Memphis coach Josh Pastner is 0-11 all-time against opponents ranked in the Top 25. (US Presswire)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis coach Josh Pastner opened his press conference with a statement about the 20 children and six adults who were killed in Connecticut on Friday, before paying his respects to the Memphis Police Department officer who was slain on the same morning in an act that left four kids without a mother.

Then he cleared his throat and tried to transition to basketball.

That’s what most of us did Saturday.

“Regarding the game,” Pastner said, “I thought we had a chance to win.”

Which is true, of course.

Memphis did have a chance to win.

But thanks to some combination of missed jumpers, careless turnovers and foul trouble, Memphis ultimately squandered its chance to win, blew a 16-point lead and lost 87-78 to No. 6 Louisville in an up-and-down affair played in front of 18,392 fans here inside FedExForum. So now Pastner is 0-11 all-time against opponents ranked in the Top 25, and that’s a statistic that’s starting to overshadow some of the good he’s done in the four years since taking on the very tough task of following John Calipari at Memphis.

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The winless-record against the Top 25 was the lead headline on the local sports page Saturday morning, and I suspect it’ll be mentioned in Sunday’s paper, too. The players are consistently asked about it. Fans routinely reference it. Pastner has even brought it up unprompted, most recently when the local media asked earlier this week how big it would be to get a win over a team and rival like Louisville.

“That way all your newscasts don’t lead off saying, ‘And Josh Pastner, who’s 0-for-188 against Top-25 teams,'” Pastner joked. “I can finally get the one win on that.”

Pastner acknowledged that record is the “elephant in the room.”

He wanted badly to remove it Saturday afternoon.

For a while it looked like he might.

D.J. Stephens was flying all over the court, blocking shots, dunking lobs and looking more like a future professional than somebody Pastner only offered a scholarship to a week before classes started in 2009. Fast-forward to this preseason, and the Memphis staff seriously considered redshirting the senior forward because they weren’t sure he could help in a frontcourt featuring Shaq Goodwin, Tarik Black, Stan Simpson and Ferrakohn Hall. And yet here was Stephens getting the start against Louisville and sinking a 3-pointer from the right corner to give the Tigers an early 25-9 advantage in a game in which he’d eventually finish with 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

The fans were rocking.

The Tigers were rolling.

The Cardinals were wobbled.

“We made some vital mistakes in the first half, but this was as good of a crowd that we’ve played in [front of] in quite some time,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “It will rival any Big East crowd. Great arena. Great fans. We had to battle all the elements.”

As you know, Louisville eventually figured it out.

Even with Gorgui Dieng sidelined and Russ Smith hobbled, the Cardinals shot 50 percent in the second half, made six of their nine 3-point attempts and rode sophomore Chane Behanan (22 points on 7-of-12 shooting) to a come-from-behind win while Memphis finished with almost as many turnovers (24) as made field goals (29). Consequently, Pastner’s 0-10 record against Top 25 opponents moved to 0-11, and it’ll stay that way unless the Tigers meet and beat a Top 25 team in March’s NCAA tournament because there are no more ranked opponents on the schedule due to the fact that Memphis still plays in C-USA.

And that’s why this loss cut deep.

It’s not just that it was the third loss of the season.

It’s that it was the third loss in a season in which the Tigers have no more opportunties for wins against ranked opponents, meaning Pastner will enter his fifth year still winless against the Top 25 unless, again, he happens to meet and beat a ranked team in the Field of 68. That’s tough. And it’s a bullet-point stat that garners criticism even though Pastner has been great in the community, established himself as a top-tier recruiter and made the NCAA tournament twice despite being just 35 years old.

“Everybody always gets on young coaches, but I know one thing: He’s much better than [I was] when I was his age,” said Pitino, who led Providence to the Final Four at the age of 34. “He’s going to do a terrific job with this program. Already has.”

Both of those statements are true, by the way. Pastner does project as someone who will do a terrific job, and, in so many ways, he already has. But the bar is high in this city where the Tigers made the Elite Eight in 2006, Elite Eight in 2007, national championship game in 2008 and Sweet 16 in 2009 under Calipari, and so it’s unlikely that at least 24 wins for the fourth straight season will satisfy the masses who yearn to see just one against a good opponent.

For a while, it looked like that one would come Saturday.

But Louisville rallied.

And Memphis collapsed.

So that win didn’t happen.

So the questions will continue.

“We haven’t been able to get a Top-25 win for Coach Pastner, and it really hurts,” said Memphis junior Chris Crawford. “But we’ve just got to keep fighting.”

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