What a difference a year makes. There stood University of Memphis guard Darius Washington Saturday afternoon, under the same basket where -- on this very weekend a year earlier, in the same event -- his missed free throws broke the heart of anyone with even a casual interest in Tiger basketball. The difference this year? Washington was standing on a ladder . . . and he was cutting that net down.
The 5th-ranked U of M Tigers beat the 25th-ranked UAB Blazers, 57-46, in a low-scoring, late-morning affair at FedExForum, to win the 2006 Conference USA tournament championship. And pardon Tiger Nation for considering the win historic. This was the program's first conference tourney title since 1987 (the year before Elliot Perry arrived, folks) and the first time in 21 years Memphis claimed both a regular season and tournament championship (that 1985 Tiger squad reached, ahem, the Final Four). In front of 16,607 fans who found their cheering voices a little early, John Calipari's sixth Memphis team became only the second in school history to win 30 games in a season.
Having lost to UAB in Birmingham merely nine days earlier, the Tigers took their home floor with something all too rare this season: something to prove. And sometimes the proof of a team's worth comes wrapped in irony.
The Tigers' two all-conference stars -- Washington and senior Rodney Carney -- scored a total of five points in the first half. But three of the team's five precocious freshmen -- Shawne Williams, Antonio Anderson, and Robert Dozier -- poured in 21. The U of M shot merely 32 percent from the field over the game's first 20 minutes. But six of their 11 field goals were three-pointers. Score at halftime? Memphis 32, UAB 22.
With Joey Dorsey -- called by Calipari the team's "fourth star" after the game -- grabbing 12 rebounds and the Tigers holding UAB to 27-percent shooting for the game, the outcome after halftime was hardly ever in doubt. Williams led all scorers with 18 points and was named the tournament's most valuable player. (Dorsey and Carney joined Williams on the all-tourney team.)
"Our freshmen play like upperclassmen," said Carney after the game, his white championship-cap pulled low on his brow. "This is the greatest senior year anyone could possibly have." Looking for a promising sign as the Tigers enter the NCAA tournament? Consider the Tigers' C-USA Player of the Year shot 3 of 14 Saturday, and Memphis still beat a top-25 team by nine points. Having played his last college game in Memphis, Carney still received the ultimate praise from his coach. "Rodney is playing for his teammates," said Calipari, "and that makes me very proud."
Will the Tigers enter the Big Dance as a number-one seed? If they do, it'll be yet another first in the program's history (the 1985 squad was a two-seed). "Without a doubt," said UAB coach Mike Anderson, responding to this very question. "They almost went undefeated in the conference, and played a tough schedule outside the conference."
"We want to make every game hard for our opponent," said Calipari. "And we're trying to make it very, very hard for that committee [not to seed us first]," he stressed. Look for the Tigers to get the top seed in the Oakland region, their first game to be played either Thursday or Friday.
"My job now is to be the best communicator I've ever been in my life," said Calipari. "I'm telling these guys [the NCAA tournament] is not a six-game tournament. Each trip we take is a two-game tournament. Win that, and you get to play another."
By the way, Darius Washington scored the 1,000th point of his superb two-year career midway through the second half Saturday. It came on a free throw.