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Turning the Corner

Why the Tennessee victory meant so much to the U of M.

By Jake Lawhead

If you have been watching the Memphis Tigers so far this season, you just knew last Saturday's Tennessee game was one the team was going to lose. Why? Because it meant so much. After losses to Iowa, Alabama, and Ole Miss, Tennessee provided the Tigers with another chance to prove to the critics that they were indeed capable of beating a team with top-level talent -- not just directional schools and local Division II schools.

And who better to gain respect against than Tennessee?

UT had won the last five meetings against the Tigers. They've been an NCAA tournament team the last four years and are a member of the SEC, a conference that has had the Tigers' number recently. And the school just went through a much ballyhooed coaching change, bringing in young hotshot Buzz Peterson from Tulsa.

It's little wonder the Tigers and their fans wanted nothing more than to keep Tennessee fans from singing "Rocky Top" on their way out of The Pyramid after the game.

They got their wish. Memphis defeated the Volunteers 71-69, but not without a little controversy and a few scares.

The U of M erased a two-point halftime deficit and surged comfortably ahead in the second half. Then the crowd of 17,253 saw the Tigers nearly blow a 65-54 lead in the final 3:56 of the game. Tennessee fought hard down the stretch, capitalizing on 10 of their final 13 possessions, and scoring on seven straight to finish the game. The Vols got four free throws from Thadeus Holden and a three-pointer to cut the lead to two points and set up a rather intense final 30 seconds.

After Earl Barron hit one of two free throws to extend Memphis' lead to 71-68, the Vols missed a three-pointer (they were 2-of-12 for the game), this one by leading scorer Ron Slay (18 points). In the scramble for the rebound, Dajuan Wagner crashed into Vol guard Jon Higgins, putting him at the line with 1.9 seconds left -- the longest 1.9 seconds of the year.

Down three, Higgins missed the front end of a two-shot foul. To the surprise of no one, Higgins intentionally missed the second. Thinking the ball had not touched the rim, official Mike Thibodeaux called an inadvertent whistle, causing much discussion and displeasure on the court and in the stands. The play was ruled a jump-ball and the possession arrow pointed to the Vols, giving them the ball out of bounds. Memphis intentionally fouled Holden. He hit the first free throw and again missed the second one on purpose. Kelly Wise grabbed the rebound and the game was over.

"We are still showing a lot of inexperience," said Coach John Calipari. "We made a lot of bad plays down the stretch. We have the will to win and the desire right now, but the issue is inexperience. When you get someone down 11 points, make it 20."

The Tigers made just six of 10 from the free-throw line in the closing minutes, due in part to Wagner passing the ball to the poor-shooting Wise when the Tigers were trying to run out the clock. Wagner also picked up his third, fourth, and fifth fouls in the last few minutes.

Wise, despite doing a great Shaquille O'Neal imitation at the free-throw line, proved to be the difference in the second half. After being manhandled by UT forward Ron Slay early in the game, Wise scored 10 of the Tigers' first 12 second-half points.

"We were kind of shocked at how aggressive they were coming at us in the first half," Earl Barron said. "We knew we had to play a little more aggressive. Kelly just started attacking."


Things Are Getting Ugly

But improvement for the Grizzlies could be on the horizon.

By Chris Przybyszewski

After the Grizzlies' first win of the regular season, against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the locker room was a happy place. The song "Ugly" by Bubba Sparxx spilled out of the speakers. One line goes as follows: "Life ain't great now, but it's much improved ... ." The sentiment seemed true enough at the time.

The team's mix of youthful enthusiasm and veteran experience seemed a good indicator of the team's character. As the squad learned to play together over the next couple of weeks and rookie Pau Gasol blossomed, things were looking up for the Grizzlies. They even won a few games.

Then reality set in and ugly doesn't begin to describe the current situation. The team, nursing its second-longest losing streak of the season, is shooting an NBA-worst 41 percent from the field and letting opponents shoot an NBA second-highest 47 percent. The Griz are not collecting those lost shots or many shots at all for that matter. The team has an NBA-worst rebound margin, minus 6.3 per game. The Grizzlies average an abysmal 89 points per game and allow opponents an average of 97. That eight-point average shortfall is worse than that of every team in the league except the hapless Chicago Bulls.

What's going on? First, injuries have crippled this team. Guard Michael Dickerson's absence leaves the Griz lacking in proven scorers. Center Lorenzen Wright's injury has left a gaping hole around the Griz basket, where opponents can now rebound and score at will. Forward Stromile Swift has had a number of questionable injuries, which have kept him out of the lineup.

Point guard Jason Williams' once-burgeoning confidence in his teammates' ability to field his passes seems to have vanished, resulting in his taking more ill-advised shots.

Finally, the sensational rookie duo of Gasol and Shane Battier is beginning to show the effects of the NBA grind. Also the league's scouting expertise has caught up with them. Stop Gasol? Just beat on him. The Wizards' Christian Laettner muscled the skinny Spaniard with impunity, holding Gasol to 6 points. Stop Battier? Deny him the outside three and make him penetrate. Battier doesn't have the ball skills or speed to get inside on many of the small forwards in the league.

But the season is long and hopes linger. Thirty wins are still possible if a number of things fall into place. Dickerson's pending return will signal a fundamental shift in the squad. Dickerson began the season tied for 11th on the NBA's all-time three-pointer list. His outside presence will ease the pressure on Battier to make shots beyond the arc and will give Williams another target. Dickerson's return will also allow the rotations to resolidify. Battier can go back to his natual small forward position and guards Rodney Buford and Willie Solomon will play fewer but more energized minutes, giving the Grizzlies needed scoring punch off the bench.

Wright's return is further away, but his presence in the second half of the season should help the team rebound -- literally and figuratively. Wright led the league in offensive rebounding before his injury.

In Wright's absence Gasol has emerged as the team's top rebounder, pulling down about 11 a game. The big kid from Barcelona is now averaging a double-double.

Also encouraging is a rumor of a trade for Warriors' back-up center Marc Jackson. Granted, several teams want Jackson and the Grizzlies are relying on a multimillion dollar salary cap exemption from the league (due to the possible retirement of center Bryant Reeves), but GM Billy Knight showed two things in the off-season: He can make a trade happen and he is not afraid to pull the trigger. If Jackson becomes a Griz, then the team will place another young, talented, and relatively cheap player in the center position. (Jackson is currently on a six-year, $23 million dollar, deal; Reeves' has a six-year, $65 million contract.) Jackson could even challenge Wright for the starting position.

The NBA is a fickle biz and the Grizzlies are demonstrating how difficult it can be to put together a winning season. For this team it will take a balance of youth, experience, hard work, and a lack of injuries. Things aren't great with the Griz right now, but with luck improvement is on the horizon.


The Score

NOTABLE

On Grizzlies.com, a message-board subscriber will now submit post-game reports to the Web site. The new reporter's username? Doofus.

Things could be worse for the injury-riddled Grizzlies. Houston Rockets star guard Steve Francis was just arrested for a DWI. Francis was the player drafted second by the Grizzlies when they were in Vancouver but he refused to play in Canada.

How about this scenario? Nebraska whips Miami in the Rose Bowl, Oregon beats Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, Illinois beats LSU in the Sugar Bowl, and Maryland upsets Florida in the Orange Bowl. The result? Five teams with a single loss and a legitimate claim to the "national championship." It's Roy Kramer's worst nightmare.

Interim coach of the New York Knicks Don Chaney and Knicks superstar Latrell Sprewell should get along just fine. When he was head coach of the L.A. Clippers, Chaney was accused of attempting to choke one of his players, Benoit Benjamin. When Sprewell was with the Golden State Warriors, he was accused of choking his coach, P.J. Carlesimo.

QUOTABLE

"We had a lot of chances. They picked up the intensity on defense and we did not respond. We tried to pound the ball inside but couldn't score." -- Grizzlies head coach Sidney Lowe after the Grizzlies loss to the Denver Nuggets, 89-86. The Griz gave up a 13-point lead in the third quarter.

"Are y'all expecting a riot? They're not that bad." -- Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley to security personnel outside the Griz locker room after the team's loss to Minnesota on December 6th.

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