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Monday, February 25, 2008

Sporting News: Memphis' lesson: Extra effort earned Tennessee the win

Memphis' lesson: Extra effort earned Tennessee the win
Posted: February 24, 2008

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- John Calipari held his final timeout until 2.9 seconds remained. There wasn't a lot of strategizing to do then. Tennessee's star guard, Chris Lofton, was about to shoot two free throws, and he was about to make them both and put the game out of reach for the Memphis Tigers. Their first loss of the season was all but official, and the coach of the not-for-long No. 1 team wanted to impart a final lecture before the buzzer sounded.

That's how it looked, anyway. The reality was more comedy than drama.

"I shouldn't have called the timeout," Calipari said. "Because if he missed the free throw, that was my last timeout. As soon as I called it I went, 'What am I doing?' "

No, the teaching came afterward, when the final score was cemented at 66-62 and Memphis had become the last team to suffer its first loss of the 2007-08 season. The Tigers will not match Saint Joseph's unbeaten regular season from 2004. They will not enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated, as UNLV did in 1991. They will not reach the ultimate level of perfection that Indiana achieved in 1976. Now, the Tigers are just another team that has shown some level of vulnerability.

"We're fine. I really wanted to win the game, but we're 26-1," Calipari said. "My thing to my team -- let's learn. We needed this. Let's find out who's going to make plays. Players make plays right now. And we learned about getting outscrapped."

Curiously, the Tigers did not lose this game at the free-throw line, although they did miss six attempts in the second half. They did not lose the game by bricking 3-pointers, although the fact that they attempted nearly half of their shots from long distance and hit less than 30 percent was a serious issue. They lost by being "outscrapped."

It seemed as though Calipari used that word at least once for every loose rebound lost to the Volunteers. Tennessee, which typically plays opponents about even on the glass, blasted one of the nation's best rebounding teams by 16 boards. The fact that the leading rebounder in the game was 6-2 guard JaJuan Smith says everything about how that difference came about. Smith was running down all those long rebounds from missed Memphis threes.

"I just think we wanted it," said Volunteers forward J.P. Prince, who grew up in Memphis, and whose father, John, once worked as a Tigers assistant coach. "People have been saying we're soft, we don't bang, we don't want contact. We took that personally."

Given the way the game began, it was odd that a slugger's statistic eventually was the difference. From the moment Calipari called a 30-second timeout just 35 seconds into the game until the moment the Vols' Duke Crews was fouled with 12:51 remaining in the first half, the teams went coast-to-coast making baskets, turnovers and highlights, scoring at a pace that translated to a 119-92 final.

Eventually, the Tigers allowed the resistance provided by the Tennessee defense -- and the false confidence from having hit six of their first 10 shots -- to restrict them to chucking jumpers. For too long, long enough for the Vols to chop at a seven-point deficit, Calipari's Dribble Drive Motion offense had no dribbling, no driving, no motion and no offense. The Vols played a sagging man-to-man defense that kept the lane clogged and discouraged attacks, but there were plenty of possessions on which Memphis barely even looked at the lane before jacking a shot.

"The first half, we shot too many threes," Calipari said. "The second half, we only shot seven, but we didn't make any. It was just one three -- just make one of those and the game changes, and we just weren't able to today."

The Tigers' most consistent offensive maneuver in the second half consisted of point guard Derrick Rose abusing whatever matchup Tennessee attempted against him. A freshman playing perhaps his only college season before entering the NBA draft, Rose found a comfortable spot on the left baseline, about eight feet from the goal, and kept driving to that position and nailing pull-up jumpers. He finished with 23 points and five assists, and Calipari wanted him to have the ball on the Tigers' penultimate possession, with his team down a point.

Tennessee wisely doubled Rose to keep the ball out of his hands, and shooting guard Antonio Anderson tried a drive down the lane that ended with a curious, wide-left shot/pass/turnover hybrid that slammed off the backboard. What exactly Anderson was attempting there, only he knows, because he refused to talk to reporters following the game.

With the locker room filled with local and national media, Anderson and All-America candidate Chris Douglas-Roberts left younger teammates such as Rose and reserve guard Doneal Mack to answer questions. Douglas-Roberts sat back in his locker with his uniform jersey over his head.

"It felt empty," Rose said.

He'd never lost a college basketball game before. If the Tigers learn from what they saw against Tennessee -- that being talented doesn't exempt players from delivering effort -- losing need not be something Rose experiences again.

Mike DeCourcy is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at decourcy@sportingnews.com.

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