MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis offense turned stagnant in the second half, but the Tigers’ defensive effort allowed them to survive a Harvard rally.
The Tigers, who looked like they were going to cruise through the game, escaped with a 60-50 victory over the Crimson on Saturday afternoon as Chris Crawford scored 13 points, including eight in the final 3:30, to help Memphis thwart the Harvard effort.
‘‘We won the game through defense; absolutely through defense,’’ Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. ‘‘We had a big-time skid offensively. We were getting paint shots, but we were not in a rhythm offensively.
’’ .Defensively, we were really good, and that’s how we are going to win games. Our identity is through our defense.’’
Memphis led by as many as 20 early in the second half, but had to weather a burst that saw Harvard eventually overtake the Tigers (14-3) before Crawford took over the game. Crawford, who has struggled offensively lately, was 5 of 10 from the floor and connected on a pair of dunks, two free throws and a jumper down the stretch.
‘‘The last three minutes, I was just trying to do whatever it took,’’ Crawford said. ‘‘I'm just trying to get back into the flow of the game. It’s great that you can find your rhythm in a game like this.’’
Shaq Goodwin had 11 points and eight rebounds for Memphis, which won its eighth straight. D.J. Stephens and Joe Jackson finished with 10 points each. Stephens also grabbed eight rebounds and blocked four shots.
Wesley Saunders led the Crimson (9-6) with 11 points, while Steve Moundou-Missi finished with 10 and seven rebounds as Harvard lost for only the second time in the last seven games.
‘‘I thought we really dug ourselves a big hole against an outstanding basketball team,’’ Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said, later adding: ‘‘I was really proud of our guys the way we fought back to make it a game and to actually take the lead.’’
The Tigers’ defense smothered Harvard’s offense early, holding the Crimson to 5-of-19 shooting (26.3 percent) from the field in the first half. That helped Memphis lead 32-16 at intermission — the lowest point total for the Crimson in a half this season.
Memphis held a 23-16 margin on the boards and forced 13 Harvard turnovers during the first half.
Even though Memphis managed only 36.1 percent shooting (13 of 36), their dominance inside was evident. The Tigers scored 20 of their 32 points in the paint.
‘‘Two things we said we needed to do in this game, and I thought really hurt us right away: We needed to take care of the ball, and we needed to try and box out and keep them off the backboard.
‘‘I thought both of those things were on display completely for (the Tigers).’’
Memphis hit its first four shots in the game before missing 15 straight, but Harvard was unable to put a dent in the Memphis advantage, which reached 20 initially near the 5-minute mark of the first half.
Amaker said he told his team at halftime they needed to get back to the game plan. He told the players they were better than they showed in the first half. ‘‘We knew we were embarrassed by our performance,’’ he said.
Harvard was much better to open the second half. Jonah Travis, who sat most of the first half with foul issues, scored six straight points to kick start 13 unanswered points, including a 3-pointer from Saunders.
‘‘He came back and really gave us a shot in the arm at the beginning of the second half,’’ Amaker said of Travis. ‘‘It got us out of the blocks.’’
The burst fueled by Travis turned a 20-point Memphis advantage to a 36-29 lead with plenty of time left.
At that point, Memphis’ shooting woes were showing. The Crimson, who shot so poorly in the first half, were hitting at a better percentage than the Tigers near the midway point of the second half.
Memphis briefly took the lead back to double digits, but the Crimson answered with 13 straight points to complete the comeback for a 46-44 lead near the 7-minute mark.
‘‘You’re thinking: ‘What just happened?'’’ Crawford said. ‘‘Basically, that’s what you are thinking, but you've just got to keep your composure out there. You've got to stay positive. That’s what we did. We didn’t get nervous. Everybody didn’t start looking around. We kept our composure and just finished the game.’’
The teams exchanged leads over the next few minutes until Memphis built a slight buffer with six straight points, including a basket and a pair of free throws from Crawford for a 54-48 lead with 1:42 left.