MEMPHIS — 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 Saturday afternoon as Chris Crawford scored 13 points, including 8 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. Crawford 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.’’
Wesley Saunders led the Crimson (9-6) with 11 points, while Steve Moundou-Missi finished with 10 points and seven rebounds as Harvard lost for only the second time in 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 build a 32-16 lead 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) in the half, it dominated inside by scoring 20 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,” said Amaker.
Amaker said he told his team at halftime it needed to get back to the game plan. ‘‘We knew we were embarrassed by our performance,’’ he said.
Harvard was much better to open the second half. Jonah Travis scored 6 straight points to kick-start a 13-0 run.
The burst fueled by Travis turned a 20-point Memphis advantage to a 36-29 lead.
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 seven-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. We kept our composure and just finished the game.’’