There are times when a crowd of 14,000 basketball fans sounds like 40,000. Such a moment occurred with just under eight minutes to play in the Conference USA championship game at FedExForum Saturday.
Already up by 20 points, the Tigers had possession of the ball, only to see it knocked from the hands of point guard Tyreke Evans. Evans went to the floor after the loose ball and, from his backside, passed the rock to Antonio Anderson who redirected the ball immediately to Robert Dozier, who dunked for the exclamation point to the Tigers' 25th consecutive win and fourth straight C-USA tournament title.
The freshman Evans finished with 18 points and 6 assists and was named tournament MVP. Dozier added 18 points and 14 rebounds to join Evans on the all-tournament team, along with junior center Shawn Taggart, who helped hold Tulsa's star center, Jerome Jordan to four points in 34 minutes of play. (Tulsa's Glenn Andrews and Ray Reese completed the all-tourney team.)
Once again, it was the vice grip of Tiger defense that shaped the way the championship was played. The Golden Hurricane was held to 26 percent shooting and scored only 19 second-half points. "Their defense forces you to rush shots," said Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik after the game, "to take them earlier than you want to. They play hard, and get every loose ball. It's hard to score off the dribble against them. Our trouble has always been scoring against them, especially here."
Memphis blocked 10 shots and forced 12 turnovers in holding Tulsa under 40 points for the second time this season (the only games the 24-10 Golden Hurricane offense has been so stifled).
After the postgame trophy presentation, the University of Memphis unveiled a new banner in the rafters at FedExForum. The banner honors Anderson, Dozier, and Chance McGrady for having achieved the "Most Wins in NCAA History." A section of the banner remains blank, as the final win total -- currently 135 -- will be determined by the team's performance in the NCAA tournament, which opens next week.
"I had to leave the building," said Calipari, "when I looked at my wife and she had tears in her eyes. I started to tear up. They're graduating in May, on time, in four years. That's 19 of 22 players [graduating]. They aren't getting any recognition nationally, and I have no idea why. But what they've done, it's never been done.
Calipari and his team will now wait for their seeding and region assignment for the "Big Dance," to be announced Sunday evening. Count Calipari among those who feel the 31-3 Tigers have earned a top seed. "We're a good team," said Calipari after the game. "We chose to play one of the best non-conference schedules in the country. We chose to play on the road in the middle of our league season at two places where no one ever wins: Gonzaga and Tennessee. Whatever was in front of us, we took care of. Now, we're not allowed to lose. Everyone else can lose three of five and still get a one seed. I can't imagine we'll be lower than a two, unless the SEC has the [committee] room rigged."
Evans admitted feeling a little sluggish in the first half (the Tigers led by eight at halftime). "Coach got on me for pushing the ball in the second half," said Evans. "It's on, now," added Calipari. "But if I can get him to play with more fire, to play faster, like he did in the second half ... it's really on."