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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Anderson emerges from season-long slump as Tigers pummel Blue Raiders

Anderson emerges from season-long slump as Tigers pummel Blue Raiders
By Dan Wolken
Sunday, December 16, 2007

NASHVILLE -- The task of carrying the University of Memphis to a Final Four is far too heavy a load for the shoulders of just two players.

But through seven games, the No. 2-ranked Tigers had grown accustomed to relying on the offensive skills of Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose as their other usual contributors worked through early-season funks.

In Saturday's Sun Belt Classic, however, Memphis was forced to find out what kind of team it would be on a night when Douglas-Roberts and Rose did not match their earlier form. And in a 65-41 victory over Middle Tennessee at the Sommet Center, the answer was as self-affirming as anything the Tigers have seen this season.

Certainly, it was no surprise to coach John Calipari that the Tigers were able to press overmatched Middle Tennessee into submission Saturday. And there was little doubt that, if all else failed, Memphis' half-court defense would be able to smother the Blue Raiders when it mattered.

But as the Tigers celebrated their 8-0 start and looked forward to a week in which they will play Cincinnati and Georgetown, nothing felt as important as the stat line Calipari had been waiting all season to see.

After failing to look like himself for the past month, junior guard Antonio Anderson came alive with a 9-point, 6-rebound, 6-assist performance that rekindled memories of what the Tigers have been for two straight Elite Eight runs.

A team that can create easy shots against any kind of defense. A team that plays aggressively and unselfishly. A team that doesn't panic when lesser opponents fire their best shots.

"Isn't it amazing?" Calipari said. "We're a different team. What happens is, it takes pressure off the other guys to just go do what you do. That stat line of six assists and two turnovers? We just haven't seen that (from Anderson)."

And the Tigers needed it Saturday in a game where Douglas-Roberts and Rose didn't have their best stuff, scoring a combined nine points and generally having little impact on the proceedings.

On other nights this season, that might have put Memphis in dangerous territory, especially against a Middle Tennessee team that tried to confuse the Tigers with several different zone defenses.

This time, the Tigers were able to solve the puzzle, as their three big men each scored 11 points and made Memphis' 4-for-19 shooting from the 3-point line irrelevant to the outcome.

The facilitator for much of it was Anderson, who drove through Middle Tennessee's zones and set up Joey Dorsey, Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart for easy shots as the Tigers built a 13-point halftime lead and put the game out of reach with a big spurt early in the second half.

"That's the whole key right there," said Dozier, who also had seven rebounds, five blocks and six steals in 25 minutes. "We have to be able to get the ball inside and put points on the board. They're going to pack it in; we've got to get two guys up at the elbow and have a guy in the paint posting to make it unbalanced for them and make it tough on them like they're trying to make it on us."

And though Anderson helped make things easy for his big men, it was just as important that he shoot the ball confidently Saturday, despite entering the game just 16-for-47 from the field this season. Anderson didn't get credited with many shots -- he went 2-for-5 from the field -- but went 4-for-6 from the free-throw line and made a big 3-pointer with 15:37 left to give the Tigers a 46-28 lead.

"I wasn't making shots, so I came in before practice every day and it's been building my confidence," Anderson said. "Coach believes in me, and my teammates believe in me."

Meanwhile, the Tigers put in their best defensive performance of the season, holding the Blue Raiders (3-6) to 13-of-48 field goals and forcing 20 turnovers with a relentless full-court press that produced several easy buckets.

Though the game was tight early, Memphis led 35-22 at halftime, finishing on a 14-4 run. A sequence of swarming defense helped Memphis build a 54-31 lead with 11:03 to go, and the Tigers methodically finished off the game from there.

"They did what a lot of teams are trying to do to us, which is pack it in, junk it up, hold the ball, try to make shots at the buzzer, try to keep it close and try to get fouled," Calipari said. "The only thing I keep telling my team is let's make it very difficult and see if they can do it for 40 minutes."

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at

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