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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sluggish and Sloppy, Tigers Escape Pirates' Upset Bid

Sluggish and sloppy, Tigers escape Pirates' upset bid

By Dan Wolken
January 21, 2007

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- The moment John Calipari knew what kind of day this was going to be came long before his team clanked eight of its first 14 free throws and committed 14 first-half turnovers, long before Joey Dorsey tried to dribble through his legs (emphasis on tried to) and long before some East Carolina students started chanting "Overrated" with 3:28 left in the first half.

No, Calipari sensed the struggle he'd have on his hands before the No. 17-ranked Memphis Tigers even arrived at Minges Coliseum on Saturday.

"They were on the bus, messing around," Calipari said. "I heard it and didn't say anything. I got in the locker room. They're joking around 25 minutes before the game. Now, I'm smoking. There's smoke coming out of my ears, but I'm thinking, they understand. And then ... you saw what happened."
Though the final score read Memphis 61, East Carolina 44, nobody in the Tigers camp could claim that it felt like a 17-point win.

Against the nation's 323rd-ranked team according to the RPI, the Tigers had to fight much harder than they expected to secure their seventh straight victory, improving their record to 15-3 overall and 5-0 in Conference USA.

And frankly, it could have been worse.

On a night when Memphis shot 30.9 percent, committed 17 turnovers and didn't have the services of leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts due to a right ankle sprain, the Tigers finally took control with a 21-4 run, giving them a 47-32 lead with 11:11 left. But even then, the Tigers had to grind it out by making 13 straight free throws and constantly pressuring ECU, which finished with 24 turnovers.

Without Douglas-Roberts, the Tigers couldn't get their spacing offensively and got suckered into taking too many 3-pointers, finishing 4-of-23 for the game. The only thing Memphis could do, seemingly, was try to stay aggressive and get to the free-throw line, where it made 23-of-39 compared to ECU's 8-of-18.

But the second half was far prettier than the first, in which Memphis could only manage a 21-21 tie after failing to break down ECU's zone defense and scoring just two field goals in a span of 15:30.

"That was probably the worst half we've played all year, and we knew that," freshman Doneal Mack, who started in Douglas-Roberts' place, said. "We can't come out like that. Not to knock ECU, but they're struggling and we can't come out like that."

Calipari said he didn't come into the locker room yelling or screaming, but made his point by saying just "seven words." Though he wasn't willing to share which seven, the insinuation was clear. And the message, more or less, got through.

Dorsey, who tried to do too much in the first half, got back to his game in the second and finished with 15 rebounds and seven points. Sophomore forward Robert Dozier, who had just three points in the first half, scored nine in the second and finished with 12 rebounds. Mack scored 10 straight Memphis points early in the second half, giving the Tigers a 45-32 lead.

And senior guard Jeremy Hunt, who struggled from 3-point range (1-for-6), drove aggressively and finished with a team-high 16, drawing fouls and making baseline runners.

"It was a real rough game," Hunt said. "We didn't play how we wanted to play at the start. The game plan didn't go how we wanted, but we did it to ourselves. We said we're going to have to get together as a team and pull this out. It just seemed like we didn't play with the same emotion we had been playing with, but we picked it up in the second half."

It was such a rough game, the Tigers had to use Dozier for 34 minutes, Dorsey for 30, Hunt for 30, backup point guard Andre Allen for 32 and Antonio Anderson for 36.

And still, ECU played with enough energy and emotion in front of 6,064 fans to give the Tigers a scare here for the second straight year.

"We didn't handle the ball very well in the second half or make some key free throws, and that really hurt us," ECU coach Ricky Stokes said. "They really hurt us on the boards. Dorsey was just too much for us."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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