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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Jeremy Hunt Says He Gave It His Best

Tigers' Hunt says he gave it his best

By Jim Masilak

SAN ANTONIO -- Jeremy Hunt lingered on the floor of the Alamodome as if in a daydream.

His hopes for a trip to the Final Four extinguished along with his eligibility following the University of Memphis' 92-76 South Regional final loss Saturday to Ohio State, Hunt staggered aimlessly for a few moments before assistant coach Derek Kellogg guided him gently toward the locker room.

"I left everything out there. Everything," said Hunt, who scored a game-high 26 points in his final collegiate game. "I played like it was my last game, and it just so happened it was my last game."

A year ago Hunt was a pariah, banished from the team following a pair of off-the-court incidents. When the Tigers lost to UCLA in the Elite Eight round of last season's NCAA Tournament, he couldn't help but wonder if his presence might have altered the outcome.

Given another chance by the university after earning his degree and staying out of trouble, the former Craigmont High standout was desperate to lead the Tigers back to the Final Four for the first time since 1985.

"At the beginning of the game I was saying it in my head: 'We can't let it be like last year. We can't lose in the Elite Eight again,'" Hunt said. "I always dreamed of having big games against big teams for the University of Memphis ... and this was the biggest game I've ever played in. I wanted to win it so bad."

He demonstrated as much from the moment Memphis coach John Calipari first summoned him from the bench.

Memphis (33-4) had gotten off to a miserable start, failing to score for the first 4 minutes and 39 seconds and ultimately falling into an early 9-2 hole.

That's when Hunt, the Tigers' ultra-confident fifth-year senior guard, took over.

Aggressive on the dribble and more accurate from the perimeter than at any time in the last month, Hunt almost single-handedly kept the Tigers in the game early on against the Buckeyes (34-3).

He nailed his first 3-point attempt and then hit 7-of-8 free-throw attempts, drawing a pair of early fouls on Ohio State center Greg Oden in the process. Hunt hit two more 3s to complete an invaluable 16-point first-half performance.

"Can you imagine that? I'm just so proud of him," Tigers coach John Calipari said. "We rode him."

Hunt cooled off a bit in the second half but still chipped in with 10 points as the Tigers fought to stay close with the Big Ten Conference champions.

Hunt finished with 26 points on 6-of-16 shooting from the field, including 5-of-11 from 3-point range and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line.

"He played extremely well," sophomore guard Antonio Anderson said. "For him to go out the way he did, I just take my hat off to him. He's been a great friend and a great teammate to me all year. ... I wish him the best."

Hunt will now begin working toward what he hopes will be a career at some level in pro basketball.

"Hopefully I can get a couple looks," he said. "I'm just gonna work my tail off."

The realization that he'd never again wear a Tiger uniform struck Hunt as "weird." But he has high hopes for a team that figures to return all of its other key players next year -- not to mention a couple high-profile recruits.

"I wish all those guys the best," Hunt said. "I love all those guys. They're like my brothers. They're like my family. I had a lot of fun with them. But it would have been a whole lot sweeter if we had won."

Hunt, however, left the Alamodome safe in the knowledge he'd done everything he could to make it happen.

"I left it all on the floor. There's no doubt in anybody's mind I left it on the floor," he said. "I would have left my jersey on the floor if it would have helped us win."

-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311

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