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Saturday, March 24, 2007

From the Dallas Morning News "Memphis Winning Critics Over"

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a sports columnist for The Dallas Morning News.

Memphis winning critics over
Didn't respect Memphis before? How about now?

12:08 AM CDT on Saturday, March 24, 2007

SAN ANTONIO – Memphis wants you to know it has one of the nation's best basketball programs. And it shouldn't matter that it plays in a bad conference.

So it's intent on winning and proving you – and me – wrong until we finally admit Memphis is an elite program. Frankly, that shouldn't be too hard after Memphis beat Texas A&M on Thursday night at the Alamodome.

Not after the Tigers won on the Aggies' home court. At least it sounded like their home court, considering the crowd of 26,060 couldn't have had more than 1,500 Memphis fans.

Not after the Tigers grabbed three offensive rebounds on their final offensive possession of the game. And certainly not after Antonio Anderson, a 64 percent free throw shooter, made two freebies with 3.1 seconds to give the Tigers a one-point lead.

Memphis earned this one. It deserved to win.

Please don't do the Aggies a disservice by whining that the officials took too much time off the clock, reducing it from 3.1 seconds to 2.0 seconds after a Memphis player deflected the Aggies' inbounds pass.

Memphis denied Acie Law IV an opportunity to hit one more clutch shot. Dominique Kirk missed a 3-point heave from about midcourt that bounced off the rim as time expired.

Memphis, the No. 2 seed in the South, has won 25 consecutive games. We all know the Tigers play in a subpar basketball conference, at least for this season, but any Division I team that wins that many games in a row deserves your respect. Mine, too.

"We're just ready to prove people wrong," Anderson said. "That's why we play so hard."

If you're honest, you didn't respect Memphis. Why would you? Conference USA had only one team selected to the NCAA Tournament.

Heck, Memphis only beat SMU by three points in its final regular-season game, which is embarrassing for a program of its stature. Few things, though, anger coach John Calipari more than ripping his conference.

Do so, and he'll go on and on about how several teams are building new practice facilities or arenas, when he's not talking about all of the good players returning next season.

"Next year, we'll get two or three teams in the tournament," he said, "and a couple in the NIT."

Until then, it's all about Memphis. You should've remembered this is a team with a proud and storied history. Besides, it's not like the Tigers haven't been good lately. Memphis earned a No. 1 seed last year and advanced to the Elite Eight.

"We heard everything people said about our conference all week, but now we're playing the elite of the elite," said Chris Douglas-Roberts, "and we're winning and feeling good about it."

No reason they shouldn't.

Memphis has a terrific coach in Calipari and a tough leader in Douglas-Roberts, who was carried off the court last weekend after severely spraining his ankle. Although Douglas-Roberts insisted he was going to play, there was no guarantee he would play as well as he did, scoring 15 points with four rebounds in 37 minutes.

Memphis, 19-3 on the road the last two seasons, played with poise in the most hostile of conditions. The Tigers performed with a toughness forged by playing at Tennessee and at Arizona and in the Maui Classic against Georgia Tech and Kentucky.

The Tigers never trailed by more than five points, and every time A&M started to pull away, Memphis either scored a couple of baskets or Calipari took a timeout to slow the pace and regain control of the building.

Getty Images
Memphis doesn't usually make clutch fre throws, but Antonio Anderson (foreground, left) did. Memphis also kept driving to the basket and forcing the Aggies to foul them or give up layups. The Tigers would not be denied the lane, no matter the physical beating it required.

That's determination.

In the end, with the game on the line, Memphis wanted it more. That doesn't mean A&M didn't play hard. Or try hard.

But three different Memphis players grabbed offensive rebounds in the final 12 seconds. That's desire. They refused to walk off the court with a loss.

"It was a challenge," said Calipari, "but we wanted to come to Texas in front of 30,000 and prove ourselves."

Now, Memphis is one win away from the Final Four. Pretty good, don't you think, for a Conference USA team.

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