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The most gallant effort ever? Maybe. Certainly the most heartbreaking.


TIGER TEARS Heartbreak hurts. But it can be that much more painful to witness.

With time having expired at the 2005 Conference USA championship Saturday at FedExForum, University of Memphis freshman Darius Washington missed a pair of free throws that would not only have won his team a tournament trophy, but would have -- more poignantly for this all too emotional season in Tiger Nation -- earned Memphis a berth in the NCAA tournament. Of course, the made shots would have beaten hated Louisville, perhaps the finest reward of all. When Washington’s third attempt -- he had been fouled attempting a buzzer-beating three-pointer -- fell to floor, so did Washington. The all-tournament C-USA Freshman of the Year, having made nine of 15 shots from the field for 23 points, was reduced to a prostrate, tear-stained victim of lost destiny. And it took several teammates to lift him to his feet. (You want to know what kind of pressure Washington faced with those shots? Teammate Duane Erwin -- a senior -- was kneeling in front of me at the opposite end of the floor, back to Washington, unable to so much as watch.)

The tragedy of the 75-74 loss is that Washington’s collapse ended forty minutes of near-perfect basketball, the finest game (college or professional) FedExForum has seen in its inaugural season. Here was a struggle between the sixth-ranked team in the country, a club with Final Four aspirations, and their underachieving hometown rivals, attempting a fourth must-win in four days for the dance ticket that makes or breaks a season.

There was a one-minute stretch, late in the first half, that was basketball at its most brilliantly sublime. Tiger senior Anthony Rice -- with Washington, named to the all-tournament team -- drained a three pointer to give Memphis a 36-35 lead. Louisville’s Taquan Dean -- later named the tournament’s MVP -- answered with a trey of his own, followed by a rainmaker from the Tigers’ Rodney Carney, only to have Cardinal freshman Juan Palacios drill a three-pointer to regain the lead for Louisville, 41-39. Sixty seconds, four treys, twelve points. Rice’s free throws evened the score at 41 before halftime. Right on script.

Louisville scored the first five points of the second half, and continued to hit from long range (they made a remarkable 15 three-pointers in the contest). But Memphis, the tournament’s seventh seed remember, simply would not go away. Rice hit another three-pointer to give Memphis a 57-54 lead with just over 10 minutes to play, only to see Cardinal star Francisco Garcia sandwich an Erwin layup with two threes for a 60-59 Louisville lead. Back and forth the storied programs went, down to the final minute.

Jeremy Hunt made the first of two free throws to tie the score at 71 with 49 seconds left. Erwin stripped Dean of the ball after the missed foul shot, and Washington was there to pounce. His driving layup gave Memphis a 73-71 lead, only to see it lost when Larry O’Bannon hit, yes, a three-pointer in front of Arthur Barclay with 27 ticks left on the clock. After an offensive foul was called on Hunt, the Cards’ Brad Gianiny made a free throw to set up the dramatic, game-ending free throw sequence.

If hearts were indeed broken all over the Mid-South, the healing has to start in the Tiger locker room. And don’t tell any of Washington’s teammates his missed opportunity cost Memphis a championship. “You should be blaming me,” softly spoke Barclay after the tears had been dried. “I lost the game for us . . . I was late getting [to O’Bannon]. It wasn’t Darius’ fault.”

“I’ve been in this situation for four years,” noted Rice, his voice still quivering. “And we’ve managed to lose all of them. I told Darius to keep his head up. That was a lot of weight on him. [Just watching], your mind goes blank. Your heart stops. He had made all the plays down the stretch. We wouldn’t have even been in the game without him.”

Washington will heal. He’s not only a tough point guard, but a tough young man, his force of personality being part of what drove enigmatic star Sean Banks to the sidelines and eventually off campus. He demanded -- with his coach’s public backing -- that these Tigers follow him, that the beat of his dribble become the pulse of Tiger Nation. And, particularly over four unforgettable days at FedExForum, Washington’s team responded.

Memphis coach John Calipari -- the often volcanic tempest of screams, stomps, and punches during a game -- was composed and forthright during his postgame remarks. “My team couldn’t have played better,” he said. “We lost to a great team, and my hat’s off to them. They’re a one seed . . . and they escaped.

“[My team] is one of the top 20 in the country. But we’re where we are. I screwed up with that early schedule, and hopefully I’ll learn from it. I should have scheduled three tough games, beaten up on everyone else, and we wouldn’t be talking about [being on the NCAA bubble]. I screwed up.”

When asked about playing in the NIT, the likely scenario considering no 15-loss team has ever received an at-large bid to the NCAAs, Calipari didn’t so much as hesitate. “If we have the chance to extend our season,” he replied, “we’re going to play. I have young players who need to play, need the minutes.” Leaving FedEx Forum for the fourth time in four days, you got the distinct impression that no one needed those next minutes on the basketball court more than one Darius Washington.

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