Jan. 12, 2007, 1:52AM
Houston comes up short at home
No. 20 Memphis gets early jump on Cougars 79-69
By MICHAEL MURPHY
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
The Houston Cougars figured they had a good game plan for Thursday's nationally televised game against Memphis.
The Tigers, the 20th-ranked team in the nation, were bigger. Much bigger. They were deeper. They were more experienced.
But the Cougars believed their constantly changing defense and attack-the-basket offense would keep Memphis off-balance just long enough to give them the opening they would need to pull off the upset.
The only problem was that their scheme required five players, and for entirely too much of the game the Cougars played like they had only four on the floor.
The result was a 79-69 Memphis victory before a crowd of 4,804 fans at Hofheinz Pavilion, and ESPN's cameras.
What hurt the Cougars more than the Tigers' size, depth and experience was the fact that they spent much of the night playing five-on-four, with junior forward Dion Dowell remarkable only by his absence.
While Robert McKiver was blasting his way to 27 points, the Cougars' "big men" — 6-6 Jahmar Thorpe and 6-7 Nick Mosley — battled the Memphis monsters for a combined 24 points (on 11-of-18 shooting) and 11 rebounds.
But in the biggest game of the season, Dowell, a junior transfer from Texas, finished with four points and three rebounds. He made only one shot, but even more painful for the Cougars (5-8, 0-1 C-USA) was watching Dowell attempt only five shots.
"Against an outstanding team like Memphis, you need guys to step up, and the only guys who stepped up were McKiver and Jahmar Thorpe," said Cougars coach Tom Penders. "We needed more from Oliver Lafayette (six points on 3-of-10 shooting) certainly. He was in a funk. Robert Lee (scoreless in nine minutes) was sick and wasn't himself out there.
"But it was kind of a disappointing performance by Dion Dowell. If you look at his numbers coming into this game and the quality of opponents we were playing, he just didn't step up and give us what he normally does. And to have a shot against Memphis, you have to have that."
The final was never really in doubt, mostly because the Tigers (12-3, 2-0) were able to go inside and exploit their overwhelming size advantage pretty much whenever they pleased.
Joey Dorsey, the Tigers' rock-hard 6-9, 260-pound center, had 10 rebounds and three blocks, scoring eight points as an offensive afterthought. Robert Dozier, a 6-9 "small" forward, had 12 points and three blocks. And when the Cougars tried to collapse inside to help, the Tigers kicked the ball out to the perimeter, where guys like Chris Douglas-Roberts (16 points, 6-of-8 shooting), Jeremy Hunt (14 points) and Doneal Mack (11 ponts, 3-of-3 shooting) hit almost everything they put up.
That was true of the whole Memphis team, which shot 60 percent from the floor (30-of-50) and 62.5 percent from the 3-point line (10-of-16).
"As a team, we have to fight more," said McKiver, who dropped in half of his 18 shots. "We have to come out and be ready to defend our goals."
Thorpe and Mosley did what they could, battling inside and keeping the game from being a blowout after the Cougars fell behind by 14 points at halftime. But without any contributions from Dowell, Lafayette and Lee, the Cougars were swimming upstream against a big, good team.
"I'm looking for him to be a real leader, one where the other players will follow," Penders said of Dowell. "Sometimes your most talented players have to go through this. For him to sit there and have to watch a freshman play so fearlessly, scrambling so fiercely for loose balls and rebounds, has to register."