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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Calipari's Tigers end 2007 on a 'special run'

Calipari's Tigers end 2007 on a 'special run'
Some memorable moments over U of M's calendar year
By Dan Wolken
Monday, December 31, 2007

As coach John Calipari analyzed, then re-analyzed what happened at FedExForum late Saturday night, he finally came back to the simplest, yet most important part of No. 2-ranked Memphis' 76-63 victory over No. 17 Arizona.

"We're in a special run," Calipari said. "So enjoy it."

Indeed, by beating Arizona, Memphis closed out 2007 with a 34-1 record, including victories over some of college basketball's great programs like Texas A&M, Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Southern California, and Georgetown. Though the Tigers hope to make 2008 even more memorable with a trip to the Final Four, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to ever match the record they compiled during this calendar year.

Before the Tigers look ahead to the next part of their schedule, beginning Thursday at FedExForum against Siena, here are the 10 moments that stand out most from this last trip around the sun.

1. "The Free Throws," March 22, San Antonio: The pressure of making game-deciding free throws in the NCAA Tournament can crack even the best of shooters. So imagine the situation facing Antonio Anderson with 3.1 seconds left in a Sweet 16 game against Texas A&M. Not only did Anderson have to overcome the fact that he had missed three straight from the line before that, but he somehow had to drown out a football-like crowd of 25,000 screaming Aggies.

All season, Calipari had said that the Tigers would make the free throws that mattered, despite the team's 62.1 shooting percentage. And on this occasion, he was right, as Anderson swished both to send Memphis into the Elite Eight, 65-64. Though Anderson's free throws will stick out forever in Tiger history, they would not have occurred without a brilliant sequence of offensive rebounding. After Andre Allen missed a 3-pointer, Jeremy Hunt snatched away the long carom and tried a putback runner that missed. Then, Robert Dozier missed a tip-in attempt, and Anderson followed with a miss. In that chaos, however, the officiating crew correctly saw that Donald Sloan had whacked Anderson on the right arm, sending him to the free throw line.

2. "The Spectacle," Dec. 22, Memphis: When Calipari was presented with an opportunity to get Georgetown on his home schedule, he jumped at it with full force. Indeed, to make it happen, Calipari persuaded the athletic department to buy out a game at Ole Miss, arguing that playing Georgetown at FedExForum would be not just a basketball game but an event. Calipari was right, as 18,864 fans packed the arena and several national media members came to Memphis to cover the season's only scheduled matchup between top-five teams.

The electric atmosphere produced a memorable game, as the Tigers finished a fast-paced first half with a 17-5 flurry, then pulled away with a dominating second half for an 85-71 victory. Georgetown, ranked No. 5 coming into the game, didn't even appear to be in the same league as Memphis, which won the rebounding battle 43-30 and made 11 of its final 19 field goals to solidify its claim as one of the nation's elite.

3. "The Tip Dunk," Nov. 5, Memphis: After a year of hype and anticipation, freshman phenom Derrick Rose signaled his arrival in college basketball with an explosive debut against Tennessee-Martin. Rose contributed 17 points, five assists, six rebounds and two blocked shots in a 102-71 victory, and Tiger fans didn't have to wait long to see why he was labeled as special coming out of Chicago.

With 3:17 left in the first half, Chris Douglas-Roberts missed a jumper from the near wing. From across the court, Rose read the trajectory of the shot as a miss. Instinctively, he launched himself from his position near the free throw line toward the rim and soared for a thunderous tip-dunk, rising higher than any 6-foot-3 point guard should be able to.

4. "David and Goliath," March 23, San Antonio: It may be awhile before Joey Dorsey can go somewhere without being reminded of his ill-timed comments about freshman center Greg Oden on the eve of Memphis' Elite Eight game with Ohio State.

"It's going to be David and Goliath," Dorsey said, with a room full of reporters around him at the Alamodome. "I'm Goliath. He's the little man. I'm going to outwork him to every ball. I think I'm going to have like a 20 rebound night. Coach Cal said this is going to be my breakout game."

And on it on went, with Dorsey later calling Oden overrated. After he failed to show up the next day -- zero points, three rebounds -- Dorsey was mocked nationally, and not just for messing up his Biblical history. Though Dorsey's comments may or may not have had much to do with Ohio State's 92-76 victory, you just can't tip the karmic scales that overtly and expect to get rewarded.

5. "The Ankle Sprain," March 18, New Orleans: In truth, the outcome of Memphis' second-round NCAA Tournament game against Nevada should have been decided long before the 8-minute mark. To that point, the No. 2-seed Tigers had pretty much controlled the Wolfpack, but a mess of missed layups invited trouble all afternoon long.

And by the time Douglas-Roberts went down with a severe left ankle sprain, Memphis had blown its opportunity to put the game away. Indeed, when their leading scorer was carried into the locker room with no hope of coming back, the Tigers suddenly were in big trouble, as Nevada cut the deficit to 64-62 with five minutes to go. But Memphis kept its composure and played nearly perfect basketball down the stretch, finishing the game on a 14-0 run to advance to its second straight Sweet 16 for the second time in school history.

6. "The Gonzaga Saga," Feb. 17, Spokane, Wash.: After failing to capitalize on early-season opportunities, the Tigers badly needed a signature win to solidify a high NCAA Tournament seed. And to get it, Memphis would have to fly more than four hours to the Inland Northwest and play in front of a sold-out, hostile crowd of 11,272 fans. Despite opening a 13-point lead early in the second half, Memphis had to withstand a charge from Gonzaga to send the game to overtime. But Tigers senior Jeremy Hunt, who went 0-for-4 from the field in regulation, hit two huge 3-pointers to keep them in it. Then, with the Tigers down a point, Douglas-Roberts slashed across the lane and hit a one-handed game-winner from eight feet with 5.6 seconds left. The 78-77 victory was Memphis' 15th straight.

7. "The Payback," Nov. 15, New York: Calipari and UConn coach Jim Calhoun were New England rivals in the early 1990s, but Calipari did not have an opportunity to beat him since his first two years at UMass. Though both coaches downplayed the matchup, Memphis' 81-70 victory in the 2k Sports College Hoops Classic championship game was a satisfying victory for Calipari. Douglas-Roberts scored a career-high 33 points, while Rose added 24 points at Madison Square Garden.

8. "The Breakaway," Jan. 4, Memphis: Memphis likes to say it always improves after Camp Cal, the all-basketball period between semesters. And the Tigers showed it in an 88-55 dissection of Cincinnati on national television, providing hints of just how good they could be. Against a former C-USA rival, Memphis made 20-of-33 field goals in the first half and built a 31-point lead. The game was so lopsided, ESPN broke away from it in the second half to show the finish of Southern California and Oregon.

9. "The Dragon," Feb. 8, Birmingham, Ala.: At halftime, the score was UAB 25, Jeremy Hunt 25. In a career performance for the senior, Hunt finished with 30 points in Memphis' 70-56 victory at Bartow Arena. Hunt made six 3-pointers in the first half, willing Memphis to a 12-point lead, including a 30-footer to beat the buzzer. When he made the final shot, Hunt simply laid down on UAB's dragon logo, right where it spits a stream of fire.

10. "The Circus," Jan. 31, Orlando: After a series of unimpressive victories against East Carolina, Tulsa and Southern Miss, the Tigers seemed vulnerable in late January. Central Florida sensed it too, filling 5,000-seat UCF Arena for the biggest home game in school history. As players were being introduced, the mascot of practically every pro team in the state of Florida was on the floor, contributing to a circus-like atmosphere that seemed a potential hurdle to Memphis' perfect C-USA record. But the Tigers didn't give the crowd much chance to get revved up, sprinting to a 13-4 lead and ultimately blowing out the second-place Knights, 87-65.

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365.

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