TEN FOR THE TOMB
Frank Murtaugh After 13 years of Penny-highs and Price-lows, the University of Memphis Tigers will likely play their final game in The Pyramid a week from Wednesday, against the Horned Frogs of TCU. (Despite the penny-wise, pound-foolish shenanigans of the Memphis City Council, the deal sending the U of M to FedExForum will get done. Too many reasons in favor.)
Memphis has sent five teams from the Pointed Place to the NCAA tournament and one to an NIT championship. Four head coaches have looked up at the retired jerseys of Finch, Robinson, and Lee, and three players left The Pyramid to become top-10 picks in the NBA draft. So excuse me if I side-step the U o Ms imminent jump to a new arena and do a little mourning this week. What follows is one mans list of the 10 biggest Tiger games in the Tomb of (Pending) Doom.
10) November 29, 1991 -- The Mid-South Coliseum never saw this kind of attendance. Nearly 20,000 Tiger faithful packed the new arena for its basketball debut. With a national TV audience tuning in on ESPN, Anfernee Hardaway made his long-awaited debut as well. The combination of Penny, Tony Madlock, Anthony Douglas, and Billy Smith wasnt quite enough against 20th-ranked DePaul, the Blue Demons christening the Tomb with a 92-89 overtime win.
9) November 17, 2000 -- Keep in mind there was no day-dreaming about a new arena when John Calipari decided Memphis was the job for him. The Pyramid was among the primary reasons Coach Cal offered for making the leap from his native northeast. For his coming-out party, Calipari invited his former Atlantic 10 nemesis, John Chaney, to town. Not so far removed from an infamous press-conference confrontation in which Chaney threatened Caliparis life, Temple buried the hatchet by beating the Tigers, 67-62, on national television.
8) December 12, 1998 -- Probably the only significant win of the otherwise forgettable Tic Price era. Memphis hadnt played Ole Miss in 13 years, so the 78-72 overtime victory was a nice statement for the U of M program and reminded local recruits that they didnt need the SEC to find big-time college basketball.
7) December 4, 1999 -- Hardaways single-game career high was 37 points, Dajuan Wagners 32. Lorenzen Wright? 36. But on this night, Harlem Globetrotter-to-be Keiron Shine lived up to his surname, lighting up Miami for 39 points, to this day a single-game record for The Pyramid. The Tigers whipped the Hurricanes, 82-72.
6) February 20, 1996 -- The 91-66 win over Southern Miss was coach Larry Finchs 200th on the Tiger sideline. He remains the only Memphis coach to attain this lofty plateau. The 1995-96 squad -- led by Lorenzen Wright, Mingo Johnson, and Chris Garner -- was Finchs last to reach the NCAA tournament.
5) March 1, 2003 -- What had been Conference USAs top rivalry -- Memphis and Cincinnati -- grew decidedly uneven in the late Nineties, as the Bearcats began a six-game winning streak at the expense of the Tigers. With both Calipari and Bob Huggins opening the game in bow ties to honor retiring Mount St. Marys coach Jim Phelan, Memphis dominated the second half, more than doubling the Bearcats on the scoreboard (40-19). Led by 23 points from Chris Massie, Memphis won, 67-48, handing Cincinnati its worst defeat in eight years of C-USA play.
4) March 1, 1997 -- Goodbyes are never easy, particularly when it comes to family. After the turmoil of a lengthy buyout negotiation with athletic director R.C. Johnson, Larry Finch wrapped up his career on the Tiger sidelines in scripted fashion, beating ninth-ranked Cincinnati, 75-63. Alas, these Tigers -- despite the efforts of seniors Chris Garner and Cedric Henderson -- had to settle for an NIT bid, finishing Coach Finchs final campaign at a pedestrian 16-15.
3) February 4, 2004 -- As if Memphis-Louisville needed any more spice. With another high-profile, nattily dressed Yankee on the sidelines -- the Cardinals Rick Pitino -- Calipari led a young squad against the sixth-ranked team in the country, one that had already reeled off a 16-game winning streak. Despite a pair of Louisville stars (Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia) absent with injuries, the Cardinals shot better than 60 percent in the first half and appeared to have Memphis cornered. Those same shooters, however, were held to 29 percent in the second half, and the Tigers beat their arch-rivals, 62-58.
2) February 6, 1993 -- Cincinnati had beaten the Tigers not once, not twice . . . but four times during the 1991-92 season, including a blowout in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. So when the fourth-ranked Bearcats and their infuriatingly talented point guard Nick Van Exel came to town, Tiger Nation was frothing for blood. With Hardaway filling a highlight tape all by himself, Memphis won, 68-66. This was the 1,000th win in U of M history.
1) February 8, 1992 -- There was a time when the Tiger-Hog rivalry had more Memphis flavor than a dry rack at the Rendezvous. Led by All-America candidate Todd Day (a graduate of Hamilton High School), fifth-ranked Arkansas marched into The Pyramid to take on the Tigers and their All-America candidate, Penny Hardaway (a graduate of Treadwell High School). The Tigers prevailed, 92-88, and went on to upset Arkansas a month later in the second round of the NCAA tournament on their way to the Midwest Regional finals.