TULSA — Ensured of finishing his first season as Tulsa coach with a winning record, Danny Manning still wants more. He hopes there’s a chance for more improvement somewhere in college basketball’s postseason.
Manning’s youthful Golden Hurricane stuck with league powerhouse Memphis for one half Friday night, but eventually succumbed to the hot shooting of Chris Crawford as the 20th-ranked Tigers won 86-75 in the Conference USA semifinals.
Crawford scored 30 points and made eight 3-pointers, setting new career highs in both categories for the second straight game.
“We’re not happy. There are no moral victories. We want to win games and we want to compete at the highest level,” Manning said. “That’s our mind set. That’s our mentality. We’ve got to continue to strive and work to get better.”
Crawford had three 3-pointers from the right wing during a 14-4 run that put the top-seeded Tigers (29-4) in control midway through the second half after Tulsa had erased an 11-point deficit to take the lead just after halftime.
Crawford’s third 3 during the stretch made it 61-46 with 9:57 to play, and he hit two more during a 10-0 burst later on that prevented the fifth-seeded Golden Hurricane (17-15) from making another comeback.
“Crawford got free far too many times to be as good a shooter as he is,” Manning said. “We lost him a little bit too much, and he made us pay. He knocked down shots.”
Senior Scottie Haralson led the Golden Hurricane with 25 points and 12 rebounds in what will be his final game unless Tulsa receives an invitation to play in one of college basketball’s minor postseason tournaments.
“You always want to play every game like it’s your last because you never know if it’s your last,” Haralson said. “I just tried to cherish the last moments.”
Tulsa doesn’t have the resume to make it into the NCAA tournament or the NIT, but there are other options. The Golden Hurricane won the College Basketball Invitational in 2008. Any destination would give Manning more time to mold a young squad that features seven freshmen and that had only three holdovers from Doug Wojcik’s tenure.
“Hopefully we’ll get an invitation sometime soon to go somewhere and we’ll definitely go play,” Manning said. “That’s what you want to do. You want to go play. Hopefully we will get that opportunity.”
Crawford, who was voted Conference USA’s Sixth Man of the Year after moving to the bench after the first 10 games of the season, has put up a new season best in scoring in three straight games and four of the last five. He had 24 points and six 3s in the quarterfinals against Tulane.
Crawford went 8 for 10 from beyond the arc and tied the Conference USA tournament record for makes set by Charlotte’s Diego Guevara against UAB in 2000.
Afterward, his mind was centered on teammate D.J. Stephens and not his own performance. Stephens had 10 points and 10 rebounds after flying out of Tulsa first thing in the morning to attend his grandmother’s funeral and then back in the afternoon.
“I just wanted to dedicate all those points ... to D.J.’s grandmother. I want to do that for my teammate,” said Crawford, who was averaging 8.3 points through the first 24 games of the season, but has 19.6 per game over the last six.
The Tigers, who have a perfect record against C-USA competition for the fourth time in seven years, will face second-seeded Southern Miss in the championship game Saturday. Memphis has won six of the last seven titles and is 17-0 in six appearances as the tournament’s top seed.
Swilling had 15 points and Shaquille Harrison chipped in 13 for the Golden Hurricane, who were trying for their first win against a ranked opponent since 2003 under John Phillips.
Tulsa rallied from an early 23-12 deficit to pull within one by halftime, and James Woodard’s basket in the opening minute of the second half provided the Golden Hurricane a 35-34 edge.
Stephens had two blocks in the first 3 minutes of the second half, and his first of two rim-rocking, two-handed follow dunks highlighted a 9-0 response that put Memphis ahead for good after Tulsa had taken the lead.
“That guy, he doesn’t make energy plays. You know what he makes? Winning energy plays,” Tigers coach Josh Pastner said. “There’s a difference.”
Stephens got up at 6 a.m. for his emotional day, but said he ended up getting a lift from the experience — first from relatives he hadn’t seen in years, then from his teammates.
“It wasn’t really a funeral, it was more of a home-going ceremony and it was more of a joyous occasion. ... When I left, everybody was just cheerful and it was a different atmosphere than I expected,” Stephens said. “Then I flew back here and I was feeling all right, but the thing that made me the most excited about the entire day was when I got back, my teammates were happy to see me and everybody was asking was I all right and everyone was welcoming me with smiles and hugs.
“I was just like, ‘That’s crazy.’ These guys, they’re trying to connect with me on another level like a brother would.”
Crawford picked up where Stephens left off, spurring two more Memphis’ runs with his hot 3-point shooting.
“I have tremendous confidence in Chris. I have so much confidence in the guy that when he makes a mistake defensively or he makes a mistake offensively, I’m surprised,” Pastner said. “I get frustrated because I just expect perfection from him. That’s the level that I hold him to.”