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Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Foul Finish

A foul finish
For second straight season, Tigers come up one game short of trip to Final Four

By Dan Wolken
March 25, 2007

SAN ANTONIO -- The floater bounced off the back of the rim, and for the first time all day, Joey Dorsey's timing was perfect. He was going to get the rebound, the University of Memphis was going to get possession with nearly five minutes to go and the Tigers, behind just five points, were going to make one last push for the Final Four.

That's the way it could have happened. But in that split-second when the ball hung in the air and Dorsey leaped to grab it, everything that had gone right for Memphis to get to this moment suddenly seemed to change.

Dorsey, who had made himself the center of attention a day earlier by calling out freshman sensation Greg Oden, whiffed on the rebound. And seconds later, Ron Lewis made the 3-pointer that essentially clinched No. 1 seed Ohio State's trip to Atlanta and sent Memphis home with a second straight Elite Eight disappointment, 92-76, in front of 26,260 at the Alamodome.
And though the Tigers will certainly celebrate another 33-4 season, a perfect Conference USA record and another long NCAA Tournament run, this one stung badly because Memphis knew just how close it came to the school's first Final Four berth since 1985.

"Two elite eight games in two years," sophomore Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "To lose both is tough. We just knew this is the one where we were going to get over the hump, but we couldn't do it. We didn't bring everything. They're a well-executed team, but little things that happened just separated them from us."

Little things. And one "little man."

At least, that's what Dorsey called Oden on Friday during a bizarre session with reporters. But little was a more apt description of Dorsey's impact on this game: No points, three rebounds and four fouls.

The only thing little about Oden was the amount of difficulty he had dominating Memphis, scoring 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting with nine rebounds.

"Joey did not try to fire this kid up," coach John Calipari said. "What he was saying was, he's one of the best in the country and I want to see what I can do against him, and it was blown up ... I feel bad that he played that poorly."

Despite the Dorsey-Oden subplot, there were plenty of reasons Memphis couldn't overcome Ohio State, which shot 51 percent from the field and made 35 of 41 free throws.

The Tigers made 10 of 22 from 3-point range, but just 16 of 43 from inside the arc. Memphis couldn't get the game sped up to a favorable pace, failing to score a fast-break bucket. And when the Tigers did get a rare defensive stop, they too often missed out on loose balls and rebounds.

"When it boiled down to it, we didn't make shots," said sophomore Robert Dozier, who had nine points and 11 rebounds. "We missed a whole bunch of shots and let them get offensive rebounds. That's what beat us."

Despite all the trouble with Oden and Mike Conley Jr., who broke down Memphis' defense repeatedly to score 19 points, the Tigers were in position to win with 10 minutes left.

After two Willie Kemp 3-pointers in the final 1:48 of the half brought Memphis within 41-38, the Tigers got Oden to pick up his third foul with 17:21 to go. Immediately, the Tigers attacked the basket, with Douglas-Roberts and senior Jeremy Hunt getting layups and free throws that catapulted Memphis to a 56-51 lead with 12:39 to go.

But the Tigers began to face foul trouble of their own. By the 10-minute mark, three key players had four fouls, including Andre Allen, Douglas-Roberts and Dorsey.

The most critical occurred with 9:43 to go and Memphis leading by three points. After Douglas-Roberts missed a layup and Allen missed a tip, Ron Lewis missed a 3-pointer at the other end.

But Oden grabbed the offensive rebound, and Douglas-Roberts grabbed him around the waist, which was called an intentional foul. To Memphis' surprise, Oden's putback dunk counted on what appeared to be a continuation call and after Oden made a free throw the game was tied.

Ohio State got the ball back, which Jamar Butler converted into two free throws for a 62-60 lead. Memphis would never see the lead again.

"That was the worst intentional foul I've ever seen in my life," sophomore Antonio Anderson said. "He barely grabbed him, but that's how it goes. We had to roll with it."

After the game, in a quiet Memphis locker room, the focus turned partly toward next season, when the Tigers should return everyone but Hunt. That wasn't enough, however, to soothe emotions about the opportunity Memphis left behind.

"There's nothing to say," Hunt, who scored 26 points on 5 of 11 from the 3-point line, said after his final game. "We ran up against a team we felt like we could beat, but we missed a couple loose balls, and after the intentional foul, it kind of went downhill from there."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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