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Monday, March 19, 2007

With CRR Hobbling, Tigers Keep Cool, Score Final 14 Points

With Douglas-Roberts hobbling, Tigers keep cool, produce plays that send Nevada packing

By Dan Wolken
March 19, 2007

NEW ORLEANS -- An ankle turns. A ball caroms off the rim after going down halfway. An argument begins. A lead evaporates. The University of Memphis' berth in the Sweet 16 starts slipping away.

And so with 4 minutes and 59 seconds remaining Sunday at New Orleans Arena, John Calipari called the Tigers into a huddle and asked just how much more they were prepared to squeeze from this team and this season.

Chris Douglas-Roberts, the Tigers' leading scorer, was gone to the locker room and not coming back. The slim 4-point lead over Nevada, which had been two moments earlier, had given Memphis a reason to doubt its fate.

"You didn't know what to expect," Calipari said.

But maybe he should have, because this is what he built Memphis to be: A team that proved its grit, showcased its depth and relied on its togetherness to pull away for a 78-62 victory that puts the No. 2 seeded Tigers in consecutive Sweet 16s for the second time in school history.

And though it could be a bitter-Sweet 16 with Douglas-Roberts' status up in the air due to a mild-to-moderate left ankle sprain suffered with 8:11 to go, there was only joy Sunday as Memphis earned a trip to San Antonio's Alamodome, where the Tigers will face No. 3 seed Texas A&M in a South Regional semifinal Thursday at 6:27 p.m.

"When our leading scorer goes down and we come together like that, as a coach, it's kind of emotional," Calipari said.

For every team that plays deep into March, there are moments that come to define them and players that find ways to push beyond their limits.

And the Tigers (32-3) will look back at Sunday's victory as a testament to sophomore guard Antonio Anderson, whose remarkable performance of 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and no turnovers was put into context with 4:04 remaining, when he saved a rebound off Joey Dorsey's missed free throw. Seconds later, Andre Allen's driving layup gave the Tigers a 69-62 lead with 3:40 to go.

And Memphis will also remember the effort of sophomore forward Robert Dozier, who harassed Nevada star Nick Fazekas into a 7-of-18 shooting performance and played with the power and aggressiveness he has lacked much of this season.

With 2:30 to go, Dozier grabbed the most important of his eight rebounds, ripping the ball away from Fazekas after Marcelus Kemp's missed 3-pointer. It turned out to be the rebound that sent Memphis to the Sweet 16 because with 1:54 left, Allen fed Anderson for a backdoor layup that put Memphis in front, 71-62.

By the time it was over, Memphis had out-scored Nevada 14-0 over the final 4:59 after the Wolf Pack (29-5) cut its deficit to 64-62.

"Basically, we know Chris is our go-to guy," Anderson said. "We all knew we had to dig a little deeper, do a little more than what we're capable of doing and try to get things done without him. We knew we had to do that for him."

The irony in Memphis pulling away without Douglas-Roberts is that it could not pull away with him at any time Sunday.

Though the Tigers' quickness and length clearly was too much for Nevada -- Memphis held the Wolf Pack to 36.8 percent shooting and had a 40-30 rebounding edge -- the Tigers led just 37-33 at halftime. And the reason was missed layups by everybody from Anderson to Douglas-Roberts to Hunt, who blew two wide-open opportunities in the first half and a couple more in the second.

"I'm going to guess 10 layups," Calipari said. "Let's be real, 12 layups. I mean like, How did you miss that? At one point it's 11-8 and I look at my staff (and said), Guys, we've got problems. It should be 25-8. We've missed six layups already."

Still, the Tigers had pushed a 3-point edge with 9:44 remaining to 64-57 after two Dorsey free throws. After Nevada's Kemp threw away a pass, Memphis was suddenly poised to open the lead. But on that possession, Douglas-Roberts went up hard for a layup and came down harder, his left ankle twisting almost as far as it could go without breaking.

As he was being helped to the locker room, a Hunt 3-pointer that would have given Memphis a 10-point lead rattled out. Moments later, Denis Ikovlev hit a 3-pointer, Fazekas made two free throws and freshman Doneal Mack threw away a pass, giving Nevada an opportunity to tie.

But Dozier, playing near-perfect defense on Fazekas, forced a miss from in close. Everything went the Tigers' way from there.

"We just had to dig deep on the defensive side, come up with lose balls, force some turnovers to get them out of synch, and we did," Dozier said.

After the game, a reporter tried to ask the Tigers what kind of winning mentality they had developed by winning now 24 straight games. Calipari immediately stopped the question.

"What winning streak?" Calipari said. "We're 2-0."

And one of 16.

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