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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Defensive effort gets Tigers a victory over banged-up Arizona

Defensive effort gets Tigers a victory over banged-up Arizona
No. 2 Tigers 76, No. 17 Arizona 63
By Dan Wolken
Sunday, December 30, 2007

Shawn Taggart put his chest out and his hands back, like coach John Calipari has begged him to do in every practice since October, and leaned into the body of Arizona forward Jordan Hill. And just like Calipari had preached, Hill lowered his shoulder, Taggart took the contact, the whistle blew for an offensive foul , and the ball belonged to the University of Memphis.

And as Calipari skipped down the Tigers' bench Saturday night, pumping his fist and celebrating yet another brilliant defensive play with 16:19 remaining, it became clear why No. 2-ranked Memphis believes it can win any kind of game on any kind of night.

When the free throws aren't falling, the stars aren't producing and the Tigers get mired in a mess of missed layups, Memphis always has its defense. And it bailed out the scrambling, suffocating Tigers again in a 76-63 victory over No. 17 Arizona in front of a sold-out FedExForum.

"That's what coach preaches, and we believe in it," junior guard Antonio Anderson. "He got that discipline in us that we have to play D in order for us to succeed, and we're doing just that."

If last Saturday's dissection of Georgetown was Memphis' work of art, this one was a testament to the many ways in which the Tigers have compiled a 34-1 record during the calendar year of 2007.

On a night when freshman point guard Derrick Rose struggled at times to run the team with efficiency (12 points, five assists, six turnovers). On a night when the Tigers (11-0) missed multiple opportunities to pull away, Memphis effectively won the game by holding Arizona without a field goal for a 12-minute stretch of the first half.

Though the Wildcats finished the game making 25-of-54 from the floor, the Tigers took control with a 21-6 run to end the first half, in which they kept Arizona off the scoreboard completely for a span of 7:44.

By the time the Tigers got to the locker room, their lead was only 34-24, but it was enough. Though Arizona kept the game within a reasonable range for the entire second half -- and the Tigers contributed to that by scoring just four points in a six-minute span -- Memphis got timely baskets, including a 3-pointer by Taggart with 2:40 remaining for a 66-55 lead. That completed a 15-point, seven-rebound performance in 19 minutes by Taggart, easily his best of the season.

Then, after a 3-pointer by Wildcats forward Chase Budinger to pull back within eight, junior forward Robert Dozier capped off a 18-point night with a 3-point play off a driving layup with 1:53 left.

"They really weren't checking the four that much," Taggart said, explaining why he and Dozier were able to get so many quality opportunities. "They were packing it in the middle, the four man was staying in the paint while our four man was on the 3-point line. That's why I think we got open shots, and it helped other players get open shots."

It was not exactly the way Memphis expected to win Saturday against an Arizona team that stayed with its man-to-man defense most of the night, bucking conventional wisdom. Instead of a high-flying track meet, the Tigers had to grind out a victory, making 29-of-61 field goals and forcing 19 turnovers, which gave them a handful of easy opportunities.

The Tigers also got 17 points and five rebounds from junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, who never quite found a rhythm but still impacted the game by making 6-of-11 from the field, including a 3-pointer with 39 seconds left to put an exclamation point on the victory.

"We win on defense," Douglas-Roberts said. "Every game, we win on the defensive end. In order for us to get great offense and transition we must create turnovers and bad shots, and that's what we strive for."

It was something of a miraculous comeback for Douglas-Roberts, who collided with center Kirk Walters with 8:11 to go and landed hard on his left elbow (it was called an intentional foul). After remaining on the ground for nearly two minutes, Douglas-Roberts made two free throws for a 53-44 lead. Earlier in the game, Douglas-Roberts scored his 1,000th career point on a high-flying dunk for a 31-18 lead.

Much of the luster from this matchup was lost when Arizona revealed Saturday that star freshman point guard Jerryd Bayless had sprained his right knee the night before during a practice at the Finch Center. Already, the Wildcats were without senior forward Bret Brielmaier due to a shoulder injury, meaning they would have to face Memphis without two starters.

The situation became even more severe for Arizona just two minutes into the game, when 6-10 forward Jordan Hill committed two fouls and went to the bench for the remainder of the first half. Hill finished with 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting.

Though the Tigers didn't take advantage of his absence early, starting just 3-for-14 from the field, Memphis took an 18-17 lead with 7:41 left in the half on Dozier's free throws and never looked back.

Memphis made 14-of-22 from the free-throw line, after starting 3-for-9.

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

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