Playing together, Tigers finish off regular season at home undefeated
By Dan Wolken
February 26, 2007
When University of Memphis coach John Calipari arrived at FedExForum on Sunday and discovered that Houston had altered its starting lineup, he began to fret.
Per their Senior Day tradition, the Tigers were starting two senior walk-ons, Clyde Wade and Jared Sandridge. And with Houston's lineup change, Sandridge would be matched against Oliver Lafayette, one of the most athletic players in Conference USA.
"(Lafayette) hasn't made a basket in like two weeks, but he would against Jared, and we couldn't afford to have him get going," Calipari said.
But with the No. 7-ranked Tigers, who ran their nation-leading win streak to 17 with a 77-64 victory over Houston, there are far more solutions than problems these days.
Instead of messing with tradition, Calipari took a suggestion -- from sophomore Kareem Cooper, of all people -- and for the first time in his career started a game in a 2-3 zone, a defense he typically finds distasteful.
It was a small gesture, to be sure. But it represented everything that has gone right this season for Memphis, which improved to 25-3 overall and 14-0 in C-USA with only road games at UTEP and SMU standing in the way of the program's first-ever unbeaten conference record.
From the team's biggest stars to the last players on the bench, Memphis for more than two months has operated as one, playing for each other and working together toward accomplishments that are suddenly close enough to reach.
"We didn't want to isolate Jared on Senior Day," sophomore guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "We weren't going to let them do that, so we protected Jared on his day because that was their gameplan coming in."
Though the zone didn't last long -- two minutes, to be exact -- the Tigers once again proved that their defense has staying power.
Sparked by reserves Andre Allen and Doneal Mack, the Tigers found their defensive identity late in the first half. And once they did, only the margin of victory was in question.
After 13 closely contested minutes, the Tigers turned up the pressure and got steals from Robert Dozier (for a dunk), Allen (for a Joey Dorsey putback) and Douglas-Roberts (for a rim-rocking breakaway), all in the final 6:40 before halftime. Suddenly, a 22-21 Memphis lead became 38-26.
"They kind of came at us, and we weren't making shots, we weren't making plays and we weren't playing no defense," senior guard Jeremy Hunt said. "But once we got going, we never looked back. We knew they'd make a run because they've probably had this game marked on their schedule because we beat them down there. We just wanted to make it hard on them."
The Tigers did just that, holding the Cougars to 9-of-28 from 3-point range, a statistic Houston needed to be far more proficient in to beat Memphis. Only junior guard Robert McKiver was able to get going, scoring 32 points on 13 of 28 shooting. The rest of the team made just 11 field goals.
Though McKiver's shooting kept Houston in the game for a while -- he cut the lead to 51-42 with 12:33 to go -- Memphis quickly answered with a baseline runner by Douglas-Roberts (19 points on 7 of 14 shooting) and a 3-pointer by Willie Kemp.
Houston also had no answer for forward Dorsey, who had 10 rebounds but made a bigger impact offensively, scoring 16 points on a variety of post moves.
With the win, Memphis got to share with an announced crowd of 16,924 its first perfect home record (16-0) since moving to FedExForum.
"This is a heck of a team, and they want it as bad for themselves as any of us want it for them," Calipari said. "They're doing it together, so it's kind of fun to be on the ride."
-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365