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FROM MY SEAT

FROM MY SEAT

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HELLOS AND GOODBYES I’ll never equate the opening of college basketball season with, say, Opening Day (note the caps) for baseball season. But there is still a kind of excitement to a college hoop team’s debut performance that induces its share of goose bumps. Particularly in the 21st century world of college basketball, you know there will be new faces. And devoid of helmets, caps, or any other form of disguising regalia, a new hometown cager hits the floor like an acting-school grad on Broadway. Sweaty palms and all. The University of Memphis tipped off year five of the John Calipari Era last Thursday at FedExForum. The fact that the game was part of the opening round of this year’s Coaches vs. Cancer classic was of mild interest to the estimated crowd of 7,000 who made it through the turnstiles at the new Tiger den. The fact that the U of M was playing Savannah State was not. This was about welcoming a new group of talent, one that can inch the returning veterans that much closer to -- go ahead and say it -- the Final Four. Old friends were up to their usual tricks. Sean Banks scored 15 points in 23 minutes, Anthony Rice tied the school’s alltime record with his 163rd career three-pointer, and Rodney Carney had a pair of cloud-breaking dunks. But a pair of freshman drew the biggest cheers as the hometown Tigers waxed the visiting Tigers, 102-40. Point guard Darius Washington impressed with eight assists and only two turnovers in 30 minutes of action. His play had Calipari in midseason form when it comes to hyperbole, the coach comparing his rookie playmaker to the man he’s replaced, last year’s Conference USA Player of the Year, Antonio Burks. And then there was Joey Dorsey, the 18-year-old Baltimore native who arrived in Memphis via prep school in North Carolina. As Calipari’s second man off the bench, the 6’9” freshman scored 10 points and grabbed, count ‘em, 16 rebounds (the most since Duane Erwin pulled down 18 in a game last November). Coach Cal was more down to earth in his assessment of Dorsey’s debut. “He better rebound,” stressed the coach in his postgame remarks, “because he’s gonna miss a lot of shots. But look at [the Detroit Pistons’ All-Star] Ben Wallace. He misses half his free throws and a third of his layups . . . but he gets the rebounds.” Twenty-four hours later at the Liberty Bowl, there was a foreboding air in my corner of the press box. As the Tiger football team took on C-USA rival Southern Miss on the turf below -- and on national television to boot -- the last minutes of Danny Wimprine’s playing days in Memphis ticked down. And you had to wonder if the countdown was on for tailback sensation DeAngelo Williams as well. If Friday night was indeed the twin Tiger terrors’ last appearance at the Liberty Bowl, it was some kind of send-off party. Coach Tommy West preaches the gridiron gospel that says to win, your stars have to make plays . . . period. When the Tigers fell behind, 19-7, early in the third quarter, Wimprine responded with a 68-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Scott. With Memphis still down, 26-21, late in the third, Williams sprinted around left tackle for a 75-yard touchdown run that proved to be the game-winner . . . and quite an exclamation point on his Liberty Bowl career should he be playing on Sundays next fall. (Williams’s 15th rushing score of the season broke Dave Casinelli’s school record.) The 28 senior who said goodbye to their home stadium Friday night did so as, undeniably, the greatest class of football players the U of M has ever seen. In beating longtime nemesis -- and C-USA gold standard -- Southern Miss, the Tigers earned the delightful bonus of a second consecutive bowl game. And the significance of the win was hardly lost on West, who was, well, emotionally composed in his postgame reflections. “This was a huge win,” said West, now 23-22 in four years on the Tiger sideline. “[The Golden Eagles] had beaten us nine out of ten times. When I first came here, Southern Miss -- they told me -- was our biggest rival. I thought, how can this be a rivalry . . . we never beat ‘em. All the things involved in it -- and it being Southern Miss -- this was a huge win.”

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