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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Taggart fills Tigers' tall order

Taggart fills Tigers' tall order
Transfer settles in as backup for Dorsey
By Dan Wolken
Monday, December 10, 2007

Senior Joey Dorsey has been at the University of Memphis long enough to know what happens when he fouls out of a basketball game. So with the Tigers on the verge of overtime last Tuesday against Southern California and Dorsey already disqualified, his sense of history told him to anticipate the worst.

"I held my head down," Dorsey said.

So reliant have the No. 2-ranked Tigers been on Dorsey's rebounding and shot-blocking presence that his foul issues have been symptomatic of practically every loss they've suffered for two straight years. But what happened in overtime of Memphis' 62-58 victory showed coach John Calipari that he might not be held hostage by Dorsey's disposition any more.

Relying on 6-11 sophomore Shawn Taggart, a transfer from Iowa State, the Tigers finished off USC by grabbing all the key rebounds and loose balls and holding the Trojans to just four points in the extra period.

"It's good to know that when Joey's in the funk, we can win without him," Calipari said. "He needs to know that. We just won't play you. If it's one of those days you're sad or mad or whatever it is, we're playing these other guys. And I love Joey. I wouldn't have him in this program if I didn't love him. But the reality is, you either perform or someone else plays. It's good to have a guy like Tag on this team."

For Memphis, the search for a backup big man to take the pressure off Dorsey has been frustrating. Last season, the Tigers tried to use Kareem Cooper and Pierre Niles when Dorsey got in foul trouble. But as both struggled with weight issues, they proved time and again they could not be counted on to pull in rebounds or convert easy baskets close to the goal.

The only workable solution available to Calipari was playing a small lineup with 6-9 Robert Dozier out of position at center. Though the Tigers were able to pull through some sticky situations last season without Dorsey, it was almost a smoke-and-mirrors routine. And ultimately, when Dorsey played poorly in an Elite Eight game against Ohio State (no points, three rebounds in 19 minutes), Memphis ran out of answers.

It would have been easy to envision Tuesday's game having the same result when Dorsey fouled out with less than a minute remaining in regulation. Instead, Taggart became the key factor in overtime as Memphis shut down USC on the glass after allowing 20 offensive rebounds in regulation.

"Last year we might have lost," Dozier said. "When it comes down to it, you have to want it more than the other team, and guys did it defensively. He came up with some key blocks, key rebounds for us down the stretch. Last year, we didn't have a Shawn Taggart to come off the bench and do that. He played a major role."

Calipari was even more direct, telling Taggart in the locker room afterward that he was the reason Memphis won the game. And for Dorsey, it had been a while since he had another big man to absolve his foul guilt.

"Shawn Taggart stepped up in his role," Dorsey said. "I gave him a hug, and I love him for coming up with that win with me sitting on the bench."

Taggart, who finished with seven points and five rebounds, also made himself a factor in different ways during regulation. In the first half, he made two 3-pointers, helping a Memphis offense that was beyond stagnant for long stretches. Then, in the second half, he blocked three shots in a row during a defensive sequence that allowed Memphis to grab the lead with 6:21 to go.

It was the latter contribution that Calipari most wanted to see, since he had directed plenty of criticism at Taggart during the first few games of the season for his inability to come up with loose balls and be a defensive presence in the post. Against USC, however, Calipari said he was more comfortable with Taggart in the lineup late in the game than he was with Dorsey.

"If we didn't play him late, we don't win," Calipari said. "That rebound on that missed free throw (in overtime) won this game for us. It had nothing to do with you making a 3. I could care less if you make any. If you don't do those things, I can't play you. You do that, every once in awhile you'll get a 3 up because you'll be on the floor. I need you to rebound the ball and get in there and mix it up."

Etc.: The first John Calipari radio show of the season will be tonight at 7 on WREC-AM (600). The show will air live from Cal's Steakhouse. ... Sophomore forward Pierre Niles sat out Saturday and Sunday's practices due to a back strain. He is expected to return Tuesday.

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

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