There's no good-luck charm -- even on Friday the 13th -- like good defense. If the fourth-ranked Memphis Tigers return to the Final Four, they'll do so drenched in the sweat of stifling defense.
Friday afternoon at FedExForum, the Tigers rode a 27-2 run over the first 10 minutes of the second half to beat Houston, 74-49, in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament. This, less than 24 hours after the U of M held Tulane scoreless for 12 minutes to swing their quarterfinal contest. The Tigers were led by Robert Dozier with 16 points and Antonio Anderson, who scored 8 points, grabbed 9 rebounds, and handed out 5 assists. The two seniors -- along with classmate Chance McGrady, who played a season-high nine minutes off the bench -- established a new NCAA record with their 134th win in a Tiger uniform.
"I almost got emotional," admitted Tiger coach John Calipari after the game. "They're the winningest players in the history of college basketball, and we've still got season left. I think 40 years from now, they'll still be the winningest players in the history of college basketball. And they're all going to graduate in May, on time, in four years. They have truly made this program one that everyone looks at. People wonder why everyone wants to go to Memphis now. They watch, and they want to play like [Anderson and Dozier] play."
Memphis will play in its fifth consecutive C-USA championship game, tipping off at 10:30 Saturday morning against the winner of Friday's Tulsa-UAB tilt. The Tigers now have a 14-1 record in C-USA tourney play on their home floor. (The tournament has been played in Memphis since 2005.)
The victory also made Memphis the first program in NCAA history to achieve four consecutive 30-win seasons. On the heels of their 24th straight win, the Tigers will enter the championship game with a 30-3 mark and a 60-game winning streak in C-USA play dating back to 2006. The latter figure is now second only to 64 consecutive SEC wins by Kentucky from 1945 to 1950. Losses by three teams in the AP's top six this week (Pittsburgh, Connecticut, and Oklahoma) have increased the likelihood of the Tigers earning a second straight number-one seed in the NCAA tournament with a victory Saturday.
With the game out of hand midway through the second half, Calipari was able to rest his starters, knowing legs will feel heavy for the brunch affair on Saturday. "I made a highlight tape of the players off the bench," said the coach. "To show each of them what they look like at their best. Pierre Henderson-Niles helped himself in my eyes today. Look at the way he went after rebounds, with two hands." Wesley Witherspoon -- C-USA's Sixth Man of the Year -- scored 10 points in 19 minutes to lead a bench that outscored Houston's subs, 22-0. Roburt Sallie added a pair of three-pointers, twice the entire team's output in the quarterfinals.
Houston's Aubrey Coleman -- a first-team all-conference selection -- was held to 14 points, 21 fewer than he scored in Memphis on January 31st. Only four of those points came after halftime, when Calipari asked Anderson if someone else needed to guard the Cougar sharp-shooter. "Ten minutes later," said a grinning Anderson, "I told him they had scored two points, and they were free throws, so they really didn't score any." C-USA's Defensive Player of the Year, Anderson will suit up one last time Saturday in an arena where he now has a record of 76-3. Can a belt fit 135 notches?
-- Frank Murtaugh