During football season, it's called the Black-and-Blue Game. The often-beautiful game of basketball absorbed its share of bruises Friday afternoon, as the second-ranked Memphis Tigers beat Southern Miss, 69-53, in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament at FedExForum. The U of M advanced to a fourth consecutive C-USA title game, but only after surviving a game that saw 40 fouls, 31 turnovers, and neither team shoot better than 42 percent.
"It's really hard when you have someone pushing you everytime down the court," said Tiger point guard Derrick Rose after the game. "But you've got to stay focused and make plays."
Make plays Rose did. The freshman sensation scored 25 points and was the only Tiger to make multiple three-point shots, dropping four of the seven he attempted. With shooters (Doneal Mack missed six of his seven trey attempts) and rebounders (Joey Dorsey grabbed but two in 20 minutes) struggling, Rose spearheaded the home team through what amounts to a necessary contest on the way to a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
"Either your opponent gets the better of you, or you get the better of him," emphasized Memphis coach John Calipari. "Did they outscrap you, or did you outscrap them?"
Larry Eustachy's Golden Eagles did some scrapping in the first half, climbing out of a 20-3 hole with an 18-7 run, before Andre Allen drilled a three-pointer to give Memphis a 32-23 advantage at halftime. With steady play from juniors Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson -- who combined for nine assists and zero turnovers - the Tigers kept the margin comfortably in double digits throughout the second half.
There was a measure of payback for Tiger hoops historians, as Southern Miss spanked the Tic Price-coached Tigers by 28 points in the 1998 C-USA tourney. But this is a new decade, a new arena, a new conference really. And Southern Miss proved to be merely the latest Lilliputian in the way of this blue-and-gray-clad Gulliver's travels.
The win improves Memphis to 32-1. They'll face the winner of Friday night's UTEP-Tulsa clash for the championship at 10:30 Saturday morning. Regardless of who wins the Miner-Golden Hurricane game, the Tigers will be facing an opponent playing its fourth game in as many days. UTEP -- coached by former Tiger assistant Tony Barbee -- gave Memphis fits at FedExForum in a narrow defeat on February 2nd. The Tigers beat Tulsa twice in the regular season (by 15 on the road, and by 15 at home).