Sports » Sports Feature

No Happy Birthday

A national championship loss and the best college basketball season in NCAA history that never happened.


As a student at the University of Memphis at the end of the Shirley Raines era, there wasn't a whole lot of extracurricular activity to look forward to other than college basketball. The University Center remained under construction for most of my college career, the football team was average, and other than the occasional guest speaker or film screening, following the Tiger basketball team was one of the only ways to stay connected to the school outside of class. The fact that students could attend games for free was a plus. The fact that we had a team that secured a #1 ranking in the AP Poll for only the second time in school history during my sophomore year also helped.

So, like many other college students, I became obsessed. While I never joined the Blue Crew, I was at every single home game the year that Derrick Rose led Memphis to the national championship game, including the devastating loss that the top-ranked Tigers suffered from the second-ranked Tennessee Volunteers on ESPN in front of the whole country. It was somewhere around that game that I remember figuring out that if my Tigers made it to the national championship game in San Antonio, they would be playing for the title on my 21st birthday! This was a huge deal at the time.

The Tigers moved on from the Tennessee loss quickly and went on to sweep Conference USA, going a perfect 16-0 before winning the conference tournament at FedExForum. Then came Selection Sunday and the #1 ranking in the Southern Region. Of course, the critics said the Tigers couldn't win the national championship. Writers kept going back to the team's ineptitude from the free-throw line. I didn't care. The dream of my favorite team winning the championship on my birthday seemed more possible than ever.

After dismantling Texas-Arlington in their first-round game and gaining a close win over Mississippi State in the second round, the Tigers entered the Sweet 16. The matchup with 18th-ranked Michigan State was supposed to be a real test, but the Tigers won that game in convincing fashion and then beat seventh-ranked Texas by 20 points. Memphis was headed to the Final Four!

When the Tigers took the floor against third-ranked UCLA, I don't remember who I was with or where I was watching, but if there's one thing I will never forget about that insane season, it's the dunk. You know the one I'm talking about: where Chris Douglas-Roberts posterizes Kevin Love in video-game fashion and then Joey Dorsey points at Love while he's on the ground. It didn't matter that there was almost five minutes left in the second half, the Tigers had the game won. Next stop: National Championship.

While I hardly needed an excuse to celebrate on my 21st birthday, the fact that my school was playing for a National Championship put the party-meter deep in the red. Naturally, I decided the best place to watch the game was on Beale Street. After an exciting first half, the Tigers and the Kansas Jayhawks went back and forth down the stretch. Finally, with 2:12 minutes left, Memphis had built a nine-point lead. Happy birthday to me! Then, as every Tiger fan knows, the unthinkable happened. Kansas kept hitting shots. Memphis kept missing free throws. And then a guard by the name of Mario Chalmers hit what Kansas coach Bill Self called "probably the biggest shot ever made in Kansas history." It put the game into overtime.

In overtime, it became obvious that my Tigers had nothing left in the tank, and they ultimately lost 75-68. "Soul-crushing" is the phrase that comes to mind. Beale Street went from a party to a funeral. And I got the worst birthday present ever.

Chris Shaw is a Flyer editorial intern.

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