If you call yourself a Memphis sports fan and didn't have fun over the first weekend of 2009, you'd best get comfortable with your Wii. In a veritable three-day festival of athletics, the Bluff City set a standard unlikely to be matched over the next 51 weeks.
Last Friday, playing in weather borrowed from early October, Kentucky erased a 13-point deficit to beat East Carolina in front of 56,125 fans at the 50th AutoZone Liberty Bowl Classic. The game's singular highlight, of course, came on Wildcat defensive lineman Ventrell Jenkins' fumble recovery, which he returned 56 yards for the game-winning touchdown with three minutes to play. Jenkins delivered the finest stiff-arm since the Heisman Trophy was sculpted, dropping Pirate quarterback Patrick Pinkney on his way to paydirt.
The outcome, alas, is hardly a ringing endorsement for Conference USA. When C-USA's champion is knocked off by a Kentucky team that was merely the sixth or seventh best squad in the SEC, the divide between the "mid-major" league in which the University of Memphis plays and the BCS big boys only seems to expand. For what it's worth, since the Liberty Bowl adopted its current C-USA-vs.-SEC format after the 2006 season, the SEC representative hasn't won by more than eight points.
Saturday night at FedExForum, the Memphis Tigers played their sixth home game in 18 days, handling the Lamar Cardinals, 108-75, in the Tigers' highest scoring game of the season. (The win seemed more significant than it should have, with former Tiger coach Tic Price sitting on the Lamar bench, an assistant to Steve Roccaforte, himself an assistant to Memphis coach John Calipari for three years.) Longtime fan favorite Antonio Anderson not only seized the spotlight, but made history. Tagged with somewhat of a euphemism as "the glue guy" for three 30-win teams, Anderson became only the second Tiger player to achieve a triple-double (12 points, 10 rebounds, 13 assists). And even Penny Hardaway -- who performed the feat in 1993 -- couldn't claim the remarkable 13-0 assist-to-turnover ratio Anderson managed in the Tigers' 10th win of the season.
"No turnovers?," asked Anderson after the game. "Usually I sneak one in." When asked about the historical stat line, Anderson smiled and said, "I've never had [a triple-double]. I'd been slumping, but Coach just told me to work out of it. My teammates stuck with me, and now I'm coming out."
The Tigers -- unranked for the first time in three years -- hope they turned a corner with the move of freshman star Tyreke Evans to point guard three games ago. "Tyreke should have been our point guard from the start of the season," admitted Calipari after the game. "Whose fault is that? Mine. He now has the ball in his hands 90 percent of the time. We need to get to where he has it 95 percent."
The switch is one Evans -- the team's leading scorer, he had 25 points against Lamar -- has welcomed. "Everybody seems to be on the same page," said Evans. "As point guard, I have to get into the lane and find people for open shots. I'm used to having the ball in my hands, so I'm glad [Calipari] put it in my hands, to let me show what I can do. I have to make the right pass, and at the right time." When he's not scoring himself, that is.
To cap off the weekend Sunday -- back at the barn on Beale -- the Memphis Grizzlies ended a 13-game losing streak to Dallas by drubbing the Mavericks, 102-82. The Griz shot an astounding 67 percent in the first quarter and trailed only briefly in the third, beating their divisional rivals for the first time at FedExForum. O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, and Hakim Warrick all had at least 18 points for the Grizzlies as they ended an overall losing streak of four games. A much younger team than the Mavs, the Grizzlies also were the quicker, more energetic, more lively basketball team in this rare matinee. And what is early January if not a time for youth and vigor?
Add the Ole Miss victory in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day and the first four days of 2009 were a winning streak unlike many the Mid-South has seen as one year gave way to the next. With a general consensus that 2008 is a year best left behind, why not start in the world of sports?