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Sunday, April 06, 2008

One to go: After UCLA romp, Tigers eye Jayhawks

One to go: After UCLA romp, Tigers eye Jayhawks

National Championship game comes down to Memphis vs. Kansas on Monday night

By Tom Charlier (Contact)
Sunday, April 6, 2008

SAN ANTONIO -- When Memphis forward Joey Dorsey furiously swatted away a UCLA fast-break attempt with less than four minutes to play on Saturday, Tiger faithful everywhere just knew.

They knew that UCLA, the perennial basketball power that had ruined deep tournament runs by the University of Memphis in 1973 and 2006, would not do it again this year. They knew that the legions of skeptics who had derided the Tigers as a weak-conference team that would crack against elite competition had been proven wrong again.

The fans who began chanting "JO-EY, JO-EY" knew, most importantly, that the UofM would win -- as it did by a score of 78-63 -- to advance to Monday night's national championship game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament against Kansas.

Well, everyone but Martha Moore that is. She was hiding in the restroom, too nervous to watch.

"With six minutes left I had to leave," the 1978 Memphis grad said just after the game ended. "I went to the restroom and called my son, and he said, 'Mom, you've got to go watch; it's history.'"

History it was, and not just for the 38-1 Tigers, who will seek their first-ever title on Monday against the 36-3 Jayhawks.

It was also history because with that 38th win, the Tigers set an NCAA record for victories in a season. They did it with a virtual repeat of their dominating performances in the South Regional last weekend -- by dismantling and overwhelming a quality team with an aggressive drive-and-kick offense, relentless defense and a breathtaking running game.

Little more than halfway into the first half, Bruin players -- even the normally steady guard Russell Westbrook -- looked exhausted and bewildered.

"We played kind of like we've played all year," Tigers coach John Calipari said. "We defended. You know, made it hard on a team that shoots a high percentage."

All-America guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, who led Memphis with 28 points, said the team is distinguished by its unselfishness and positive attitude.

"We believe in ourselves," he said after the win. "So that's all that really matters to us. When we hear (negativity), we laugh because we don't understand it."

It all happened before a national television audience and a revved-up army of UofM fans among the announced Alamodome crowd of 43,718.

For more than two hours Saturday, the liveliest part of the stadium was its northwest corner, where thousands of Tiger fans cheered early and often.

They roared when the team took the floor beneath a tunnel banner that read, "And then there were four." They roared when Douglas-Roberts scored the first Memphis basket 2:20 into the game. They roared when an Antonio Anderson three-pointer two minutes later gave the Tigers their first lead, 11-10.

And they roared loudest -- jumping up and raising their arms -- when the Bruins signaled their submission by refusing to foul with less than a minute left.

Through it all, the fans enjoyed not a game but a spectacle called the Final Four.

"It's a great experience and a lot of fun," said Tiger supporter Scott Shanker. "A lot of energy and a lot of excitement."

The win vindicated the decisions by fans to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to get to San Antonio.

Take Mike Carter, 53, of Iuka, Miss. Just a couple hours before tip-off Saturday, he mimicked a well known credit card commercial in saying his decision to bring his wife, Deborah Thompson, to the Final Four was well worth the cost.

"Five hundred dollars for gas, $660 for tickets, $500 for the hotel room," he said. "Seeing the Tigers win tonight and my wife smiling: Priceless."

But today, fans, players and coaches are more focused on the game Monday.

Calipari joked that his team is under the misapprehension that they haven't set a record for wins.

"And I told them, no, no, you've got to get to 39 to have the most wins. Hopefully, we'll have one more in us."

-- Tom Charlier: 529-2572

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