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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tigers Win 2nd Straight C-USA Title

Tigers win second straight title
Seed will be outstanding, like last two years
Memphis 71, Houston 59

By Dan Wolken
March 11, 2007

The oath taken by all University of Memphis players stretches across an entire wall of the Finch Center, the words so big and bold, they are impossible to escape.
Almost every day for six months, the Tigers have stared at that pledge, imploring them simply to give everything they can, with the promise that each drop of sweat is an investment in perfection.

Ever since Dec. 20, when the Tigers left Arizona with an 8-3 record and on the brink of falling out of the national polls, they have been clawing at perfection, knowing a favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament would require nothing less
And Saturday, as the Tigers danced on the scorer's table at FedExForum and held up the Conference USA Tournament trophy after a 71-59 championship game victory over Houston, they were able to finally reflect on what they have achieved for 22 straight games.

A 16-0 conference record. A No. 5 national ranking. And now, a tournament championship that Memphis hopes will be its ticket to a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament when the pairings are announced on CBS (WREG, Ch. 3) today at 5 p.m.

"I didn't want to jinx our chances because we had a bunch of road games that were close," sophomore Chris Douglas-Roberts said moments after being named the tournament's most valuable player.

"We never tried to think about going undefeated. That was never a goal, but it happened. And now that we've done it, we'll look back at it like, 'Wow.'"

Though the numbers won't show it, the most impressive aspect of Memphis' run through C-USA is that the Tigers absorbed nearly everybody's best shot, yet still had more on their bad days and way more on their good days.

Saturday was no exception. Houston, trying to earn its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1992, played desperately; perhaps too desperately, as the Cougars' hyper-aggressive game plan led to foul trouble and fatigue.

As the Cougars proved twice earlier this year, they were good enough to play with Memphis for 15 minutes -- indeed, they led 24-19 with 9:42 to go in the first half -- but couldn't overcome their lack of size or depth.

With three Houston players in foul trouble -- Tafari Toney had four fouls in the first half alone, while Dion Dowell and Marcus Malone had three apiece -- Memphis attacked and closed the half on a 15-3 run over a span of 4:25.

Two straight layups by Douglas-Roberts and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by freshman Doneal Mack sent Memphis into halftime with a 40-29 lead. Though Cougars senior Oliver Lafayette did all he could to keep them in the game, scoring 23 points on 8 of 10 shooting, Memphis shut down Houston's other star, limiting Robert McKiver to seven points.

The Tigers finished 25 of 51 from the field and 7 of 18 from the 3-point line, riding sophomore Antonio Anderson's 17-point, five-assist effort and Douglas-Roberts' 17 points.

"We just tried to pressure them a little bit and get to the basket," Anderson said. "They were running a little short on the bench, and it took us a little while to get guys in foul trouble. That helped us a lot."

Memphis also got a huge effort from its front line, including nine points and 13 rebounds from junior Joey Dorsey and eight points with 10 rebounds from sophomore Robert Dozier. They helped shut down any potential run for Houston, which got within 11 points but no closer over the final 10 minutes.

"It's hard to find teams that play together," Dozier said. "Every one in this locker room needs each other one way or another, so we just learned to put our talents together and play together."

After the celebration was over, coach John Calipari leaned back in his chair and talked more about relief than nervousness about the Tigers' NCAA seed. After pushing so hard to get Memphis to this moment, he was ready to finally enjoy it.

"I've been on a treadmill for five months going 16 miles an hour running so fast my heels are touching my back," Calipari said. "And from right now until tomorrow I've got nothing to do. I can't believe it. I may go to a movie where I can go cry in the back."

The way this season has been going, it had to have a happy ending.

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

Selection Sunday

What: The unveiling of the 2007 NCAA Tournament bracket

When: 5 p.m.TV: WREG (3)

Tiger conference tournament titles

Year / Conference

2007 / Conference USA
2006 / Conference USA
1987 / Metro Conference
1985 / Metro Conference
1984 / Metro Conference
1982 / Metro Conference

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