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Monday, February 25, 2008

Vols top Memphis in battle for No. 1

Chattanooga Times Free Press
Wes Rucker

MEMPHIS — J.P. Prince found one of the few ways possible to justify a week’s worth of unparalleled hype for men’s basketball in the state of Tennessee.

And that’s J.P., not P.J.

Days after Memphis coach John Calipari called hometown native and former Tigers ballboy J.P. Prince “P.J.,” the Tennessee sophomore transfer drilled two clutch free throws with 8.8 seconds left to help lift the second-ranked Volunteers to a 66-62 victory over the top-ranked home team.

Prince graduated from Memphis White Station High School. Before that, he was a ballboy when his father was a Tigers assistant coach.

It’s safe to assume Calipari knew the name of a high school All-American he’d known for nearly a decade — and heavily recruited — and that his “P.J.” comment was a joke.

That joke “wasn’t a good idea,” Prince said.

“Coach Cal calling me ‘P.J.,’ I took that personally,” Prince continued. “When I heard about that, I called everybody and said, ‘Now I’m ready to go.’ I hope now he can say my name right.”

Prince, a 6-foot-7 southpaw who transferred to UT after spending his freshman year at Arizona, entered Saturday’s game a 46.7 percent free-throw shooter.

“I don’t care about those numbers,” Prince said. “When the game is on the line, I want the ball in my hands. Period. I knew both of those were going in.”

It all but ensures the Vols will receive the program’s first-ever No. 1 rankings when the major polls are released Monday.

Asked if he “could believe” how far he has taken the Vols in less than three full seasons as coach, UT’s Bruce Pearl said, “Yes, I can. I believe in my guys.”

Rose scored 23 points, and national player of the year candidate Chris Douglas-Roberts added 14 for the Tigers (26-1).

Tyler Smith led the Vols (25-2) with 16 points, while Prince and fellow West Tennessean Wayne Chism added 13 each.

Memphis overcame a six-point deficit with a late 10-4 run that Douglas-Roberts capped with a layup to give the Tigers a 61-58 lead with less than three minutes left. Tyler Smith responded with two consecutive inside buckets, the second a tough turn-around to give the Vols a 62-61 lead with 26.5 seconds left.

“I just had to fight and get those through the basket,” he said. “We’d been missing short, and I wasn’t going to miss any more.”

Prince then rebounded an Antonio Anderson miss before heading to the free-throw line with 8.8 seconds left.

Prince started the second-half rally, too, scoring six consecutive points to unlock a 39-all tie.

A Lofton steal set up Prince’s second slam to make it 45-39, and Calipari quickly called timeout with 14:44 left.

Memphis then climbed back within 50-47, but big Tigers forward Joey Dorsey picked up two fouls in two possessions, and a Tyler Smith free throw and Prince layup make it 53-47.

The first half started much differently, as both teams opened hot from the perimeter. UT was 3-of-4 from 3-point range in the first seven minutes, and Memphis was 6-of-10. Despite a clear size advantage in the post, the Tigers shot 15 of their first 18 field-goal attempts from long range. They made eight of them to take a 29-24 lead.

Multiple significant contributors on each side were forced to the bench with two fouls in the first half. Memphis forward Robert Dozier picked up two fouls in the first four minutes, and Dorsey got his with 3:37 left. Tennessee’s starting backcourt of Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Ramar Smith were also whistled twice in the first 17 minutes, as was Prince.

Pearl carefully substituted offense for defense the rest of the half, and the Vols improved on both ends. Wayne Chism’s inside bucket in the final minute capped UT’s half-ending 8-2 run, narrowing the Tigers’ lead to 35-34 at the break.

“If you had told me they’d make eight 3s in the first half, I’d tell you they were up 15 points,” Pearl said. “They were up one. I’ll take that.”

Added Ramar Smith: “There was no way they were going to keep making those.”

Rose led all scorers with eight first-half points, and Douglas-Roberts added eight. Tyler Smith and JaJuan Smith each had nine points for the Vols, and Chism had seven.

The hype surrounding this game probably hadn’t been matched in either program’s history. Prominent alumni from both universities and Memphis-raised celebrities corralled some of the toughest tickets in state history. Notable attendees included but weren’t limited to NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, singers Justin Timberlake and Isaac Hayes, professional tennis stars Lindsay Davenport and James Blake and actresses Cybill Shepherd and Priscilla Presley.

Despite a push from Memphis boosters and students to “keep the orange out, Tennessee’s bold colors were clearly visible throughout the arena. There was more blue, for certain, but many sections looked orange-and-blue enough for a Florida home game.

Two young men wearing orange tiger suits in Memphis’s student section couldn’t escape the wrath.

“Tigers aren’t orange!” one non-zoology student yelled at the duo, who promptly put blue shirts over their costumes.

The brave Memphis students wearing orange in that section were engulfed in boos and thumbs-down gestures.

“Memphis is my city,” Prince said. “This is just their school. I wasn’t going to come to my city and walk away with a loss. We’ve got the bragging rights for another year.”

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