Goose Bumps Galore

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Hats off to coach Brooks Monaghan and the University of Memphis women's soccer team. The Tigers' season ended earlier than they'd like, last Friday at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, but later than most teams can claim. Their loss to Wisconsin came in the first round of the NCAA tournament and less than a week after the Tigers won their first American Athletic Conference championship. This was the Tigers' seventh appearance in soccer's version of the Big Dance since 2007.
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I attended three U of M sporting events last week. I saw larger crowds at FedExForum (men's basketball) and the Liberty Bowl (football), but only at Mike Rose did I see a line of fans waiting to get in 20 minutes after the start of the game. It was somewhat ironic, scores of fans waiting in 40-degree chill to pay and see a "non-revenue sport." Soccer is here, folks. Memphis 901 FC will start play in March, but keep an eye on the Tiger women's program. It's exceptional, and has been for some time now.

• Call me a believer in the 2018-19 Memphis Grizzlies. Recent wins over Utah, Denver, and Philadelphia — three playoff-bound teams — have the Griz not just firmly in postseason position, but near the top of the Southwest Division. And as the Golden State Warriors continue to lord over the Western Conference, consider this: the Grizzlies have yet to raise a banner for team achievement to the rafters at FedExForum. With the San Antonio Spurs undergoing their version of a rebuild and the Houston Rockets stumbling out of the starting blocks, the Grizzlies' first division title doesn't seem out of the question. Perhaps Raise a Banner could be adopted as a franchise mantra this winter. If point guard Mike Conley stays healthy — and puts 32 points on the board now and then, as he did last Saturday against the Sixers — the Grizzlies look like a team that could play deep into April, perhaps even May.

• Running Pony is the Steven Spielberg of basketball video intros. Frankly, there have been recent Memphis Tiger teams that haven't quite deserved the 60-second adrenaline pump Running Pony put together for the pregame show. But this season's video seems to be the result of two crowd-raising forces colliding. And it's all about the video's opening.

Clad in a suit straight from Men In Black, Tiger coach Penny Hardaway carries a basketball to center court, above the U of M logo. He leans at the waist and proceeds to dribble the ball twice — right hand to left, then back to his right — and passes the ball offscreen to his left. It's a three-second infusion of goose bumps unlike anything FedExForum has seen on Tiger game nights in at least a decade. Hardaway's star power is such that merely a glimpse is enough to bring Memphis fans alive. But for a hint — even just three seconds — of Hardaway playing basketball? It's almost too much to process for those of us who remember the man's dribbling days of yore. So another Emmy goes to Running Pony. "Cool" was the first overused word in the English language, so apologies, but the Memphis Tigers have the coolest basketball coach in the country.




• The Memphis Tiger football team is one win shy of clinching a fifth consecutive winning season. How rare in these parts is such an achievement? We have to go back four decades to find such a run, the Tigers having posted winning marks from 1973 to 1977. That was, quite literally, a different era for college football, with fewer than half the bowl games we have today. (None of those Tiger teams played in a postseason contest.) Even if Memphis loses its last two regular-season games — to SMU and Houston — the Tigers will play in a bowl game for a fifth straight year (and aim to end the program's three-game bowl losing streak). It's worth emphasizing as coach Mike Norvell's third season nears the finish line: Winning football has grown customary at the U of M.

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