Before he could celebrate his first NCAA tournament victory as a head coach, Josh Pastner had to sweat out a couple of frantic seconds.
Memphis held on — though the Tigers learned quite a lesson about how quickly a game can slip away.
Matthew Dellavedova's 3-pointer from the right wing sailed long as time expired, allowing the sixth-seeded Tigers to breathe a sigh of relief. Memphis beat 11th-seeded Saint Mary's 54-52 on Thursday after nearly blowing a five-point lead in the last few seconds.
"All I know is when you wake up the next morning, it's a 'W' — at this time of the year, it's win, baby, win. Survive and advance," Pastner said.
The Tigers (31-4) led by 15 in the first half but nearly gave the game away at the end. With Memphis up 54-49, Eividas Petrulis banked in a 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds to play. The Tigers then lost the ball when the Gaels' Jordan Giusti deflected the inbound pass off Joe Jackson of Memphis and out of bounds.
"I should've called a timeout. It was my fault, but I just wanted to get it in to one of our best free throw shooters," Memphis sophomore Adonis Thomas said. "It bounced off Joe. It was on me. I should've called a timeout at the end, but the game was going so fast."
Saint Mary's (28-7) was out of timeouts but had a chance to regroup while officials reviewed the previous sequence. The extra time didn't matter. Dellavedova, the career leader in scoring for Saint Mary's, was able to get a shot off, but it missed everything.
"As soon as Delli got the ball in the corner, we all thought it was going to go in," Saint Mary's forward Brad Waldow said. "We knew it was going to go in, but it just didn't fall. That's it."
It was the first win in the NCAA tournament for Memphis since 2009, when John Calipari was still coach. The Tigers face third-seeded Michigan State on Saturday.
D.J. Stephens had nine points and eight blocks for Memphis, and Jackson had 14 points and seven assists. Waldow scored 17 points to lead Saint Mary's. Dellavedova had 10 points, seven assists and six turnovers in 40 minutes.
The Gaels beat Middle Tennessee on Tuesday night in the First Four, but they fell way behind in the first half against Memphis and struggled all game with the Tigers' athleticism, especially around the basket.
Memphis finished with 12 blocks. Saint Mary's had none.
"We knew that Dellavedova was the floor general for this team," Stephens said. "The plan for the game was to pretty much keep the ball out of his hands as much as we could — make somebody else have to initiate the offense. And we were pressing, making sure he couldn't get the ball and bring it up the floor, and it kind of threw them out of rhythm a little bit."
The Tigers led 32-22 at halftime. Dellavedova started the second half with a 3-pointer, and the Gaels trailed by only five at 32-27 before Geron Johnson scored on a tip-in for Memphis.
Waldow then had his shot blocked twice in a 15-second span, once by Stephens and once by Tarik Black. Even Stephens' less successful plays were spectacular, like a missed dunk off an offensive rebound with about 15:30 to play.
Beau Levesque had a chance to tie it for Saint Mary's with a 3-pointer, but the ball came out of his hands awkwardly, and the shot ended up missing everything.
Memphis went on an 8-2 run after that, which included a one-handed dunk by Stephens and a 3-pointer by Chris Crawford that made it 44-35.
"There's no way to explain what happened," Levesque said. "We're a good shooting team, and we've been hitting shots lately, and tonight nothing would go in. I don't know the last time I shot the ball like I did tonight. I have no idea what happened."
It was 44-40 when Mitchell Young tried to drive on Stephens. Blocked again.
A 3-pointer by Jackson put the Tigers up seven, and they appeared to be out of danger until those anxious final seconds almost ended their season.
"I was totally at peace," Pastner said. "You might not believe me, but I was."
Stephens set the tone early in the game by blocking a shot by Young. The 6-foot-5 senior would go on to block four shots in the first half, and the Tigers were just as tough on the perimeter, pressuring Dellavedova all over the court.
The Saint Mary's guard didn't come apart, finding teammates with a few nice early passes, but the Gaels never seemed totally comfortable offensively.
After Dellavedova found Waldow for a dunk and an 11-9 lead, Memphis scored 10 straight points, including 3-pointers by Thomas and Jackson. The Tigers led 28-13 after a three-point play inside by Black, and it was 32-20 after Jackson found Stephens for an alley-oop dunk.