Tickets for the opening-round game of the University of Memphis versus Texas-Arlington were going for $150 and up online last week, so it was with some trepidation that I drove to Little Rock on Friday with nary an entry pass into the Tiger game that night.
My fears proved unfounded, though, as soon as I got off the shuttle in front of Alltel Arena in North Little Rock. A guy was standing there. He had one ticket for sale, upper level. He only wanted face value: $52.50. Sold American!
In fact, the grounds of Alltel were swimming with Friday night tickets, all for face value. However, as I asked around about securing a ticket for the Sunday afternoon session, the answer from everybody was the same: "Man, nobody has Sunday tickets." Gulp.
My biggest hope for scoring a Sunday ticket was that Mississippi State would lose Friday night, and that the market would be flooded with Bulldog tickets by disappointed fans ready to get the hell back to Starkville. MSU took care of Oregon, though, and a potential positive quickly became a resolute negative. Now, not only were the Bulldog fans NOT going home, they were calling in reinforcements from their home state.
Cell phones were atwitter, and the halls of Alltel Arena were bursting with people looking for extra tickets. Everybody's prime target: Oregon and Texas-Arlington fans.
What happens is this: You walk around with your hand in the air, extending your fingers to indicate how many tickets you need. Some people shout some variation of, "I need tickets!"
Presumably, people are anxious to unload unwanted tickets. Not Friday night. I felt more like shouting, "I need a miracle!"
It seemed so crass to perch by exits of the Texas-Arlington sections and wait for them to come out. I felt like an ambulance chaser. Worse, I only needed one ticket, so, my hand up in the air, it looked like I was nonverbally telling them I was number one and that they were, at best, number 16.
Texas-Arlington fans had no tickees to give. I can only assume they're pragmatists and didn't buy for Sunday, knowing full well their team wasn't going to get all historically unprecedented and beat Memphis. Then, I saw commotion, and a knot of fellow ticket-seekers surrounded one tall guy who was holding a sheaf of tickets.
He had Easter Sunday tickets. One-hundred bucks a pop. I coveted them and hated everyone who got to him before me. But, emboldened by being there on assignment, I kept yelling, "You got one ticket? Just one? I just need one ticket!"
He finally looked at me and asked me what section I wanted. Euphorically, and stupidly, I answered, "I don't care." He thankfully forked a lower-level ticket over, I gave him $100, and I was on my merry way.
The religious holiday connection seemed supernaturally fortuitous. I've never actually seen the tall guy with the tickets and Jesus in the same place at the same time. I'm just saying. Getting a ticket early proved to be good fortune on Sunday, when a survey of the ticket scalpers outside Alltel found that lower-level seats were going for $250 and upper-level seats for $150 each. There were certainly tickets to be had, however, and I got the impression that a little hard bargaining could bring that price down.
The first game on the schedule was the number 2 seed Texas Longhorns versus the 7 seed Miami Hurricanes. Texas is led by the superb sophomore guard D.J. Augustin and junior guard A.J. Abrams. Augustin plays like he's water on the floor, slipping around defenders and squirting the ball to open defenders -- usually Abrams. (To put it in perspective, Augustin averaged 5.7 assists this year; Memphis phenom guard Derrick Rose averaged 4.5.)
In the game against Miami, Augustin passed up open or slightly contested lay-ups several times, preferring to put it in the hands of an outside shooter. It was a youthful mistake, perhaps; one that Rose wouldn't have made.
Anticipation and some nervousness were in the air before the Tigers tipped off at about 4 p.m. on Sunday. The Tiger student booster group the Blue Crew had more than 25 on hand in Little Rock, including freshman Kevin Brower, junior Daniel Cox, and sophomore Zachary Reavis. Of the three, only Brower thought that the season could still be considered a great one if the Tigers went down to Mississippi State. "You can't downplay the season and the wins," Brower said.
Reavis didn't like thinking about a possible early-round tournament loss. "I know how I felt after the Tennessee game," Reavis said, referring to the Tigers' February 23rd defeat, their only of the season.
Cox grew up on the early-1990s Larry Finch-coached Tigers teams, starring Anfernee Hardaway. Cox calls the current incarnation deeper and more talented than Hardaway's 1992 Elite 8 team. It would all be for naught if the Tigers couldn't get past the scrappy 8 seed Bulldogs, who looked awfully good Friday night versus the Oregon Ducks. Bulldog big man Charles Rhodes particularly had me losing sleep over the long weekend.
Sunday's Tigers-Bulldogs game was magnificently physical. Tiger big men Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier cast an imposing, biblical presence in the middle. Dorsey played -- dare I say it? -- inspiring, slapping away opponent shots and giving an effort far beyond what he did on Friday.
On several plays, Memphis' defense had Dozier on the front line of attack, putting a body on a ball-handler but keeping his arms straight up, not trying to block the shot. That was saved for Dorsey, who jumped from behind Dozier, buffered from picking up a foul and able to cleanly murder the ball after it left the shooters hands.
At times, the physicality of the game seemed like the more improbable scenes from a Rocky movie, each team landing haymakers then getting popped right back in the mouth on the other side of the floor. The only downside to the scenario: the refs. While the first 15 minutes of the first half was mostly pristine, it started to go downhill as Memphis forward Shawn Taggart picked up 2 fouls in less than 30 seconds. From then on, the referees seemed intent on establishing some control in the game.
The second half started equally aggressively, but, when Dorsey picked up 2 fouls in 30 seconds and Taggart got another a minute later, Memphis was forced to play conservative defense, giving up easy lay-ups and dunks and slowing the pace of the game down, to MSU's benefit.
By the time it was all said and done, Mississippi State had five players finish with 4 fouls each. Memphis had two players foul out -- Dorsey and Dozier -- and a third, Taggart, had 4 fouls.
But nothing can diminish what Dorsey did on Sunday. He turned in his best game of the season. Having to hold the fort against two monstrous opponents in Rhodes and Jarvis Varnado, Dorsey limited their presence in the game until the fouls caught up with him and Mississippi State refocused its strategy inside to take advantage of the new Tiger weakness.
Dorsey fouled out with 27 seconds left, but his stat line was beautiful: 13 points on 6-8 shooting, 12 rebounds, and 6 blocked shots.
Another bright spot, Tiger guard Willie Kemp had a great game from beyond the arc: 4-5 three-point shooting in only 13 minutes of game time. A few Bulldog fans near me referred to Kemp as "Reggie Miller," the great clutch-shooting former NBA player, and wondered why Memphis coach John Calipari didn't give him more minutes on Sunday. With interior real estate so hard to come by in the hard-fought game, and with the need for a consistent hand from the outside, it was hard not to see the MSU fans' point.
After Memphis finally secured the win 77-74, an oft-told joke made the rounds at Alltel: What Mississippi State needed was more cowbell. I laughed every single time I heard it.
Memphis moves on to Houston to face another MSU: the five seed Michigan State Spartans, who beat number four seed Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday. Texas advances to face number the three seed Stanford Cardinal on Friday in Houston. Their big man, Connor Atchley, and versatile wing Damion James are going to have to figure out what to do with Stanford's twin titans, Brook and Robin Lopez.
Memphis fans are going to have to figure out whom to root for. Stanford might pose bigger match-up problems for the Tigers in a potential Elite 8 contest. The Longhorns are going to have a Texas-sized crowd cheering them on if they advance, but they seem eminently more beatable right now. Which is the lesser of the two evils?
-- Greg Akers