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Monday, February 25, 2008

UT fans wade deep into Tiger territory for daylong festivities

UT fans wade deep into Tiger territory for daylong festivities
By Phil Stukenborg
Sunday, February 24, 2008

The trash-talking in Section 104 began shortly before 9 a.m. when FedExForum officials first allowed fans to enter the building.

ESPN's "College GameDay" crew -- Rece Davis, Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis -- was setting up near mid-court for the live show. In Section 104, Matt Emison, Brent Parrish and Meghan Pinkley were bracing themselves for more than Phelps' histrionics. They were enduring a wave of mostly lighthearted verbal abuse.

As the fans, mostly University of Memphis students, settled into their seats, Emison, Parrish and Pinkley -- Union University students and University of Tennessee fans -- stood out in their bright orange amid a sea of Tiger blue.

"We're hearing it all today,'' said Emison, 19. ''We've been getting booed the whole time.''

Such was an inherent risk for the trio, who were in Memphis to cheer the No. 2 Volunteers against the top-ranked Tigers and take in the early-morning, pregame atmosphere.

Had the Tiger fans around them known of how they obtained their tickets -- they bought student-section tickets for $150 and $250 off eBay -- the UofM fans may have turned on their own.

Still, the threesome didn't mind the stares and occasional obscenities hurled in their direction.

"It was definitely worth it," Emison said.

While there was no shortage of volume among the crowd estimated at 2,100 by UofM officials, it was evident there had been an abundance of sleep deprivation.

Several in the crowd slept through the deafening roar that ensued when the ESPN crew asked the students to make some noise.

Ashley Warren, a former Tigers cheerleader who graduated in August, said she left her home in Cordova at 5:30 a.m. UofM students Matt Helsel, a junior nursing major from Memphis, and Cal Overman, a freshman from Lexington, Tenn., stayed up through the night, as did freshman Taylor Fortney, a jazz performance major.

"I've been up since my 8 a.m. class on Friday," Fortney said.

Fortney, who sat on the row in front of Emison, Parrish and Pinkley, admired the courage of the trio.

"I guess if I had tickets to watch Memphis play in Knoxville, I'd wear my school colors, too,'' Fortney said. ''You've got to be courageous to be a fan.''

As with all the "GameDay" stops throughout the country this season, this one featured the ubiquitous hand-drawn signs, with their references to ESPN: mEmphis keepS toP raNk; tigErs cruSh Pearl's voluNteers.

And it featured the clever (We're gonna kick the #2 outta you) to the adoringly absurd (Joey Dorsey for Mayor).

ESPN officials said the crowd represented the largest gathering for a "GameDay" appearance this season, but they cautioned that next week's stop in Lawrence, Kan., likely would break the mark. Still, it created the ideal backdrop for the ESPN onsite studio.

As UofM associate athletic director Bob Winn watched the live show and the livelier crowd, his Blackberry buzzed with an e-mail from sports information director Jennifer Rodrigues, who said the wild and crazy atmosphere looked "awesome" on television.

The crowd, which packed into the lower bowl and one club-level section behind the ESPN set, wasn't limited to students.

Mike Dreve, 59, of Germantown, a Tiger Scholarship Fund member, said he woke up at about 6 a.m. and convinced his wife, Mary, a 1974 Tennessee graduate, to come, too. She was adorned in Tiger blue.

"I had to come,'' he said. ''How many times are you going to be No. 1 in the country and playing No. 2 in the country.

"This is the biggest event we've ever had in Memphis sports.''

-- Phil Stukenborg: 529-2543

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