PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) Memphis coach Josh Pastner is not taking his latest 20-win season for granted.
”It’s not a birthright, it is a special thing,” Pastner said after the 22nd-ranked Tigers beat Rutgers 64-59 on Thursday night. ”I love our players for doing that. They got us 20. It’s (a school-record) 14th straight year for the program. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Memphis (20-6, 9-4 American Athletic) was coming off an overtime loss at No. 21 Connecticut on Saturday and, despite leading from start to finish, had trouble putting away the Scarlet Knights (10-17, 4-10).
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Michael Dixon Jr. scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half to help hold off Rutgers.
"Michael Dixon made big plays,” Pastner said. ”He hit a big shot, he saved us tonight.”
Dixon’s contributions off the bench were welcome as Joe Jackson, the Tigers’ leading scorer, shot just 3 for 12 and scored 11 points.
”Joe doesn’t normally have off nights,” Dixon said. ”Joe’s a good player, he’s been playing well for us this season.
”I just saw some openings and made some plays. I try to be aggressive and at the same time stay within the confines of the team. I’m not going to lie. It’s kind of difficult sometimes. But I’m playing with a group of good players. We find a way to do it each and every day.”
Memphis beat the Scarlet Knights 101-69 in their first meeting on Feb. 4, but found it a bit tougher on the road. Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols both had 10 points for the Tigers but Rutgers hung around behind Kadeem Jack.
The Scarlet Knights forward scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half and grabbed 10 rebounds. Myles Mack had 10 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals, while Malick Kone added 10 points.
”He’s an attack player,” said Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan, whose team has lost three straight and 10 of 13. ”When he’s in attack mode and he can touch the ball, he does good things for us."
Memphis scored the game’s first seven points and led by 11 three times. The last was 32-21 early in the second half.
The closest Rutgers got was 62-59 on a 3-pointer by Mack with 4 seconds left, and Geron Johnson followed with two free throws to seal it.
”I did like going up there at that time,” Johnson said. ”I work on my game, I was confident I would knock it down. The game is never over. Good teams put teams away, we got to get better at that.”
Memphis hit its first four shots, including two 3-pointers, to take a 12-2 lead. The Tigers went ahead 24-13 before Rutgers scored eight straight points to close within three.
The Tigers answered with Goodwin’s driving layup and two free throws by Dixon for a 28-21 halftime lead.
Rutgers shot just 31.0 percent (9 for 29) in the half and was 2 of 11 from 3-point range.
In the second half, Memphis took its final 11-point lead and Rutgers could never make a big run. The lead fluctuated between five and 10 points for most of the half until a driving layup by Jack made it 53-49 with 3:45 remaining.
Dixon then scored six straight Memphis points, including a 3-pointer from the top of the circle to make it 59-51 with 1:16 left. Rutgers’ last chance came after Mack’s 3-pointer but Johnson made the two free throws to seal it and put Memphis’ record at 36-4 after a loss under Pastner.
”You can’t tell the future but we try not to get in losing streaks,” Johnson said. ”Losing is contagious and winning is too. We like to stay on the contagious side of winning.”
Jackson added five rebounds and four assists for Memphis, which shot 47.8 percent (22 for 46) but committed 16 turnovers. Rutgers shot just 37.5 percent (26 for 64) but still managed to hang in throughout.
”We didn’t do a good job of putting them away,” Pastner said. ”You got to give Rutgers credit, they kept grinding and we didn’t grind with them.”