The University of Memphis Tigers made history just by taking the floor Saturday at FedExForum. For the first time ever, the city's flagship team hosted a game as the top-ranked squad in the country. With a crowd of 18,157 in attendance, along with scouts from 15 NBA teams -- that's half the league, folks -- the Tigers beat a game Gonzaga team, 81-73, to improve their record to 19-0.
"What a great environment," said coach John Calipari after the game. "Our students were here at 6:30 in the morning, in that cold. Our fans were in the building at 10:30. They were there when we needed them to help us make a run. Not an empty seat, and they're here to see us. We'll play [here] again in a week [against UTEP], and they'll be here to see us."
Calipari's 200th win as Tiger coach was a statement of sorts to those who might doubt his team's standing above the college basketball world. The Memphis coach and Gonzaga coach Mark Few had moved their annual inter-conference matchup to late January with the expressed intent of testing each other once conference play had begun. (Like the Tigers in Conference USA, Gonzaga annually rules the West Coast Conference roost.) The game will help each program's RPI rating (invaluable when it comes to seeding for the NCAA tournament) and provide each a look at gaps to be filled before March arrives.
Memphis roared to a 10-0 lead after the 11-am local tip-off. After that two-minute outburst, though, the game lived up to its typical billing. The Bulldogs went on a 12-5 run late in the first half and, after two three-pointers from Micah Downs, took a 32-30 lead. The half ended, though, with Tiger freshman Derrick Rose following a Joey Dorsey miss with a thunderous dunk to give the U of M a 35-32 advantage. (Read that again: that's a point guard following a center's miss with a slam.)
With a Rose-to-Chris Douglas-Roberts alley-oop to open the second half, Memphis again seemed to pull away, but a 16-point lead at the 10-minute mark dwindled to six with less than two minutes to play, before the Tigers converted enough free throws down the stretch to secure the win.
And the Memphis stars played starring roles in front of the ESPN cameras. Douglas-Roberts led the home team with 21 points, Rose added 19 points and 9 assists, while Dorsey hauled down 13 rebounds and delivered a windmill dunk in the first half that will be a candidate for Slam of the Year.
Reserve center Shawn Taggart acknowledged the crowd when he reflected on the win in the locker room after the final buzzer. "The crowd is always hyped here," he said. "We go out hard, play defense, and try to win the game for them."
Taggart also noted the value of playing a team that was not intimidated by any ranking or crowd volume. "They have a good team, and we knew they weren't gonna put their heads down. We had to go out and play in the second half. We knew if it's a struggle, we're just gonna have to go and bang it out." With 15 offensive rebounds critical to the win, bang it out the Tigers did.
While shrugging at any significance to the personal milestone win, Calipari was effusive in his take on what the number-one Tigers are bringing not only to the city of Memphis, but to the entire country. "People who watch our team say they play like their lives absolutely depend on it. They swarm, they defend, and they make the extra pass. We're gonna go from being Tennessee's team to being America's team. Why? Because of the way we play: doing more with less, making everyone better, the whole unit caring about one another. The more people see it, the more they're gonna love it."