Sports » Sports Feature

Battle of New Orleans

The Tigers turn their season around by winning in the hostile Big Easy.



The first flying beer bottle carried only a few drops of backwash. I was able to stay relatively dry from that one.

But after a second beer bottle then a third and fourth flew just over the heads of everyone on press row, it seemed things might go from rowdy to medieval.

Memphis had just defeated the Green Wave of Tulane University, 58-57, and suddenly everyone wearing blue and gray in the on-campus Fogelman Arena which was at near-capacity with 3,155 in attendance had more to worry about than being struck by airborne Mardi Gras beads.

The Tigers raced off the floor, thinking more about the win they had just escaped with after John Grice's out-of-nowhere clutch shooting than the sailing cups and bottles. Reporters tucked away their laptops. The PA announcer called for order on the court.

But even for those of us caught in the melee, it was apparent that both teams had just played, if not the most important, at least the toughest and most draining game of their respective seasons. It was a game the Tigers could not afford to lose. A nationally witnessed letdown to the Green Wave two weeks after losing to Saint Louis would not have looked good to the NCAA tournament selection committee.

"When you go on the road and win, it's hard," said Tigers coach John Calipari. He staggered to the post-game radio show, water in hand, in a sweater and casual pants. He'd had to change out of his sweat-drenched suit.

"We get this everywhere we go," Calipari added. "The bottom line was we needed to win the game and move on."

It almost didn't happen. But trailing 53-49 with 4:45 left, Grice shut out the crowd noise and the pressure and hit the first of his three three-pointers. Grice's trifectas would account for Memphis' final nine game-winning points.

"Thank the Lord the shots went down," Grice said.

A very opposite sentiment was vocalized by the home crowd when their team failed to even get off a final shot. The rowdiness actually started at halftime, when one of the many liquid-courage-inspired Tulane students threw what appeared to be a T-shirt at the huddled Memphis players. It landed at Billy Richmond's feet.

Richmond, never one to back down, picked up the shirt then reared back as if to throw it at the Tulane student section. Then, just as quickly, Richmond's smile replaced the sneer and he kept the T-shirt as a souvenir from the Big Easy.

Tiger forward Chris Massie received the most heckling. Chants of "GED," with signs spelling out "Good Enough Degree," seemed to inspire Massie, who played through triple-teams and sweltering heat. Massie played a game-high 35 minutes and led the team in all major categories with 16 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists.

"[Massie] just had big rebounds and baskets and big passes," Calipari said.

Such a performance can only better prepare Massie, and the team, for potential March Madness pressure and atmosphere.

n Grice and company weren't the only Tigers to come through in the clutch, as several Tiger fans taking the Amtrak train to New Orleans left nearly five hours late due to an earlier Illinois derailment and chemical spill. Exiting the train, everyone on board basically made his way straight to the Tulane campus and Fogelman Arena, just in time to catch the final minutes of the first half. Tiger fans at home didn't fare much better, as the Duke-Wake Forest game went into two overtimes and ESPN carried that over instead of the Tiger-Green Wave first half.

n The last few days have been nostalgia-filled for Memphis fans, topped off by this week's big Louisville game. At the UAB game, Larry Finch again received a standing ovation as he was honored at center court at halftime, along with most members of the 1973 NCAA Tournament Final Four team. Though most of the Tigers weren't close to being born 30 years ago, most of the native Memphis players understood Finch's importance to this community.

"A lot of the older guys who my father hung out with, they always talked about how good a player he was," Richmond said. "I didn't get to see him actually play, or talk to him, but we attended the same church. Marcus Nolan and Rodney Newsom, those Hamilton guys, they talked about him. They always said that he was a good person. I think that he was a great coach and he had a nice passion for the game just a great all-around person. The people here really love him."

John Grice agreed. "I remember my parents saying that he was a real good player, that he could fill it up," Grice said. "He was one of the best shooters to ever come through this college. I watched them play a little bit. We had some good teams back then."

Add a comment