Midnight Magic

Tigers work the graveyard shift to beat Miami, and fans love it.

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"Ridiculous, with a capital R."

University of Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner said that three times in his post-game interview with reference to the 17,783 fans who showed up, most of them wearing blue, to watch the Tigers beat Miami 72-68 at FedExForum in a game that ended at 1:30 a.m.

He meant it in a good way, of course. It didn't look like there was any padding in that crowd figure, which would exceed attendance at most Tiger football home games this year and last.

And in case anyone had ideas about leaving at half-time to get some sleep, the Tigers and Miami kept it close right up to the end.

"Don't let this go to overtime," said my friend Al Wise, with a little over a minute to go.

It didn't. Chris Crawford made a three-pointer to give the Tigers the lead, the Tigers made their free throws and corralled a key rebound in the final minute, and polished off a big, rough Miami team that plays in the stellar Atlantic Coast Conference. But 17,783 people leaving FedExForum at once meant a 20-minute wait in the parking garage and a post-2 a.m. ETA in East Memphis.

The game started at 11 p.m. to accommodate ESPN's "24 Hours of Basketball" and Monday Night Football. Memphis had the honor of a nationally televised late-night tipoff for the second time in three years, and both times it was a near sellout.

At lunch the day of the game, I ran into Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau and a hardcore basketball fan. A naysayer he is not, but Kane predicted a crowd of 10,000. I mentioned the big crowd the last time they did this and predicted 15,000.

"You've been drinking the Kool-Aid," he said.

Some of the credit for this success story must go to U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson, who is apparently no relation to the athletic director of the same name who presides over the debacle that is the Tiger football program. Basketball Johnson was at courtside shaking hands with former Tiger star Penny Hardaway and soaking up the roar of the fans and the Tiger pep band. Football Johnson lives in a parallel universe where the Tigers and the University of Tennessee put only 28,000 people in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium a couple of weeks ago, ESPN is wishful thinking, and a 2-10 finish would be miraculous.

The University of Memphis basketball team will take away some of the sting of the losing football team and the small crowds. John Calipari and most of the players he recruited are gone. Pastner is his equal as a recruiter and patrols the bench and courtside in stylish serenity. He says "gosh" a lot and has not sworn since hitting his thumb with a hammer in 1998. There is iron as well as kindness in him. When a star recruit repeatedly got himself in trouble this fall, Pastner cut his losses and let him go.

Like Calipari, Pastner has a quick hook and played everyone on the team. With the exception of bruiser Will Coleman, most of the current Tigers are thin, quick, and young. They don't rebound very well, but, unlike previous editions, they made 77 percent of their free throws and worried Miami into missing most of their shots, which was enough to get a win. Freshman Joe Jackson is a rising star. In one sequence, he faked a bigger defender into the seats, spun around and scored, then scored again on a fast break. He also missed a dunk, but nobody's perfect.

About the only thing missing at FedExForum was the 2008 NCAA Finalist banner, a casualty of the Derrick Rose investigation. There was a small space between the 2007 and 2009 banners. You really had to look to see it. With any luck, there will be two or three new ones by 2013 and no one will notice.

In his radio wrap-up, Pastner said his young team of former high school stars does not yet realize how hard it is to consistently win games at the college level. He expressed confidence that they will learn quickly, however. Experience is a great teacher. Or they could just talk to their classmates on the football team.

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