Sports

A Nice Ride

The Tigers played over their heads before cold reality took over last week.

by Dennis Freeland

t the end of the 1993-94 basketball season, Larry Finch’s first losing season, the former head coach asked me to speak at the team banquet. He called late one night from his hotel in Charlotte, where he was attending the Final Four and the concurrent coaches’ convention. He asked me to give the address because he wanted someone who understood what his young team had been through. He wanted someone who could make freshmen like Cedric Henderson and Chris Garner feel good about their future. I was flattered that he asked. I gave it my best shot.

This week a friend called. He wanted me to repeat the mission; wanted me to write a column that would make the 1998 Tigers feel good about themselves. He thought I should write something uplifting about this team, which in the space of one week – three games – went from sitting on the bubble of the NCAA tournament to a team that will have to stretch to make the NIT.

I’ll let the coaches do the motivating, but I would say to Tiger basketball fans that they should be grateful for the season they have gotten from this undersized, mismatched team of eight transfers and two freshmen. They played unselfishly and passionately. They entertained home crowds where empty seats often outnumbered fans. They beat a good Saint Louis team on the road and gave Bob Huggins fits in Cincinnati.

What happened last week? Who can say for sure? The team appeared to lose its legs, Jermaine Ousley’s back seemed to get worse, and Harry Allen couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean. And yes, in each of the three games, the opposing team seemed to play harder, with more focus.

But this is not an obituary. Dreams of the NCAA tournament may be lost, but an NIT bid is still within reach. That would have seemed like a major accomplishment at the beginning of the season for this team which does not have a true center, has no firepower coming off the bench, and has only one regular player over 6-5 (and he’s the one with the ruptured disk).

Even if these Tigers don’t make post-season play, it will be a fun team to remember: Marcus Moody’s night in the zone at Oklahoma; Keldrick Brad-ford’s miracle shot to beat UNC Charlotte; Omar Sneed battling the odds every game, coming up with impossible rebounds, putting in shots that had no right to go in. Sneed is the most dominating big man at Memphis since Keith Lee, and the truth is he’s only a little taller than 6-4. Sneed alone makes this team memorable.

Anything more is icing. The 1997-98 Tigers gave their school and this city a nice ride. And, who knows, they may yet have a surprise or two left in their weary legs.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

Everyone knows the American Division is better than the National in Conference USA. DePaul has provided proof. The lowly Blue Demons swept the top two teams in C-USA’s National Division, winning road games at UAB and Memphis. With a record of 3-9, DePaul is clearly the worst team in the American. After last weekend, American Division teams held a 21-7 edge in head-to-head competition with the National. Should the league now re-divide the teams? Maybe swap Charlotte and Saint Louis for Houston and South Florida? … Tiger sports information director Mark Owens walked confidently down press row as the Memphis-DePaul game headed into overtime. “Tic is 7-0 lifetime in overtime games,” he told reporters. Just before taking his seat he said, “I hope I didn’t just jinx us.” Memphis lost 100-98 in double-overtime, Price’s first overtime defeat as a head coach. … I can’t remember the last sports topic that divided talk-show hosts and pundits so thoroughly as the Casey Martin decision. People have strong opinions about it, but you just never know which side they’ll land on. For the record, I say, “Let him ride.” n


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