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Friday, January 18, 2008

Houston Chronicle - Undefeated Memphis takes fight out of Rice

Undefeated Memphis takes fight out of Rice
No. 2 Tigers too much for last-place Owls

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Rice coach Willis Wilson produced some unfiltered honesty about the mountain the Owls attempted to climb against the nation's second-ranked team.

The Owls scrapped and clawed and took the fight to No. 2 Memphis, but Wilson acknowledged that the Tigers were seeking to accomplish something altogether different. Memphis rolled to a 77-50 Conference USA win on Wednesday night at Reliant Arena, but the reality is that the Owls learned as much in defeat as the Tigers gained in victory.

"For a team like Memphis, their goal is still way ahead of them," Wilson said of the Tigers' national championship aspirations. "Our goal is right here in front of us, but we have as much work to do to reach our goal as they have to reach theirs."

What the Owls (3-13, 0-3 C-USA) did right was execute offensively for a lengthy spell in the first half and stand up to the physically imposing Tigers. They challenged Memphis (16-0, 3-0) on the glass — the Tigers finished with only a 42-41 advantage in rebounds — and played rugged enough defensively to force the Tigers into a 25-for-68 (36.8 percent) shooting performance.

Turnovers tell story

But the Tigers' depth and athleticism, unparalleled in C-USA, forced the Owls into a season-high 29 turnovers, which Memphis converted into 26 points. And those extra possessions enabled the Tigers to take 18 more shots than Rice, which essentially negated the Owls' dogged perseverance and their crafty, unyielding zone defense.

"I thought what Willis did to give his team a chance to win was tremendous," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "They packed in a zone, (and) they were very aggressive offensively. They turned it over a bunch in the first half, but when they didn't turn it over, they were scoring baskets. They had a good press attack of what they wanted to do."

Memphis forced seven turnovers in the first eight minutes, led 19-6, and appeared set for another easy victory. But Rice freshman forward Suleiman Braimoh provided a spark with a block of a Memphis center Joey Dorsey's dunk attempt, and the Owls followed with an unexpected surge that pulled them within 28-21 with 3:24 left in the first half.

A streak of 35

The Tigers regrouped. Rice committed five more turnovers and managed just two field-goal attempts while Memphis reeled off a 12-2 spurt to grab a 40-23 halftime lead. Memphis followed with a 12-5 rally out of the locker room, and the 24-7 run bridging the halves was more than enough to lift the Tigers to their 35th consecutive regular-season victory.

"If you ask me, they outscrapped us, they outhustled us, and they played out of desperation," Calipari said. "They had to."

Inordinate effort couldn't help the Owls overcome their shortcomings. With three starting guards injured and unavailable, forwards Patrick Britton and Cliff Ghoram were forced to shoulder some of the ball-handling load. Not coincidentally, Britton and Ghoram combined for 12 of the Owls' turnovers against the Tigers' stifling full-court pressure.

"They're a very athletic team, but (the turnovers) go in hand with our decision-making," Ghoram said. "Just because they're coming at us, we can still make better decisions."

Wilson quickly interjected with another truthful revelation. No matter how hard they prepared for Memphis, the Owls could do only so much.

"We tried to," Wilson said, "but you can't simulate that in practice."

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