The encounter Wednesday night at The Pyramid between the University of Memphis and the University of Louisville had all the makings of a late-March showdown.
Two high-profile basketball schools. Two higher profile coaches. Cheerleaders doing back-flips a half-hour before tip-off. And national television to boot . . . prime time. Riding a seven-game winning streak (and having won 11 of their last 12), John Caliparis Memphis Tigers matched up with familiar rivals Wednesday night: the Louisville Cardinals and their own Armani-clad helmsman, Rick Pitino. It was the 78th meeting between these two old Metro Conference nemeses (the Cards owning a 47-30 edge) and the 12th confrontation between the two northeast-bred coaches (Pitinio having won
A tomb-rattling Pyramid crowd of 19,914 added to the postseason-quality setting.
In boxing terms, it was a unanimous, though tight decision. A 12-round affair of punches and counterpunches, with the U of M slightly less bruised at the final bell, winners by an 80-70 count. Calipari was his usual, matter-of-fact self following his first win over the Cardinals. "It was a hard-fought game," he said with a shrug. "Rick wasnt going to let them get away. Hes got them playing at a high level; they make runs in bunches.
(For the record, Coach Cal wore an olive-green tie; Pitino chose a silver number to complement his gray suit. No school colors tonight.)
Once Memphis took the lead -- about five minutes into the contest -- it was never relinquished, though frequently challenged. A driving layup by Louisvilles star junior, Reece Gaines, tied the score at 32 with just over three minutes to play in the first half. Gaines had been held scoreless for the games first 16 minutes but wound up with 17 on the night. What had once been an 11-point Memphis advantage was a mere four-point lead at the half.
Which is when the Tiger coach approached junior center Earl Barron to find out what was wrong. I went up to Earl and asked if he was sick, explained Calipari. "I asked if he was hurt. When he said he wasnt, I said, 'Then play!' "
Having struggled against a sagging Cardinal zone n the first half, Barron responded with a second half his coach described as unbelievable, teaming with senior forward Kelly Wise for a pair of double-doubles. Barrons 19 points were second only to freshman guard Dajuan Wagners 23; his 11 rebounds were exceeded only by Wises 18.
Memphis pushed its lead back up to nine with 11:39 to play in the second half, only to see it dwindle to a single digit behind Louisvilles scoring tandem of Gaines and Luke Whitehead (20 points). A follow-up, one-handed dunk by the Tigers Chris Massie gave Memphis a 61-56 lead at the 8:45 mark. When Cardinal center Ellis Myles (the middle of that zone defense) fouled out with just under two minutes left, the Tigers found their winning margin. A pair of free throws by Barron with 31 seconds on the clock drew the curtain down for the Cardinals.
In achieving his seventh straight double-double (he scored 16 points), Wise became only the fourth Tiger in history to seize 1,000 rebounds for his career, joining Forest Arnold, Ronnie Robinson, and Keith Lee (three Tiger legends who have their jersey-numbers hanging from The Pyramids rafters). With 13 double-doubles on the season -- he entered the game fifth in the nation in this category -- Wise is inching closer in the race with Cincinnatis Steve Logan for Conference USAs Player of the Year honors.
That is, if Wagner doesnt spoil the party. The son of former Louisville standout -- and current Memphis assistant -- Milt Wagner, Dajuans scoring average improved to 21.3, second in the conference only to Logan.
With the victory, Memphis improves to 8-0 in C- USA (18-4 overall), the programs best start in league play since the 1983-84 Tigers won their first nine Metro Conference affairs. Over the last two seasons the Tigers are now 15-1 under Calipari during the month of January. The loss drops Louisville to 12-7 in their first season under Pitino, 3-5 in conference play.
"We're pretty good," said Calipari when asked what he learned from this tilt. "We're still young. Someone different should be prepared to step up every game. Tonight, it was Earl." As far as the bitter Tiger-Cardinal rivalry goes? Calipari said his players saw the night as simply "another game," noting, "They couldn't tell you Louisville's record."
Up next for the Tigers are a pair of home games. The Horned Frogs of TCU visit The Pyramid Saturday for a 1 pm tip-off (Memphis won their game in Fort Worth on January 9th, 98-93).
Memphis then hosts Tulane on Monday night. Despite 29 points from the Green Waves Brandon Brown, the U of M won their previous meeting on January 12th, 78-70.