To say the University of Memphis Tigers limped into The Pyramid for their Saturday afternoon tilt with the Houston Cougars wouldnt be much of an exaggeration.
Considering their record-breaking 10-game winning streak in Conference USA play had been thoroughly interrupted by a pair of whippings at the hands of UAB and Charlotte; considering their most valuable player, senior forward Kelly Wise, was still nursing a sore knee; and considering their top scorer, freshman guard Dajuan Wagner, was playing with a heavy heart two weeks after the death of an uncle . . . well, the limp was rather pronounced.
The game with Houston -- a team the Tigers trounced by 18 in Texas January 26th -- was an opportunity to stabilize the lost swagger inspired and encouraged by coach John Calipari.
Didnt happen. Houstons senior guard, Dominic Smith, drained a three-pointer with 45 seconds left to give the Cougars a 73-72 lead, one they wouldnt relinquish in handing Memphis its third straight loss, 76-73.
Smith followed his rainbow dagger with a pair of free throws with four ticks on the clock to finish with 16 points. Another 25 from senior forward Patrick Okafor, along with 18 points and 11 boards from junior forward Louis Truscott, was plenty to give Houston only the second win among visitors to The Pyramid this season.
A dejected Memphis coach John Calipari described the loss as bad, ugly, disappointing. He acknowledged the absence of Wise -- who dressed but never entered the game -- was a huge factor, but that his other players have to be more able to fill the senior forwards sizable void. Ive had teams lose tough games, said Calipari. Guys have to show heart, desire. Thats what this is all about. I havent had many teams get outworked. The difference between starters in the NBA and CBA players is a fine line.
The Tigers starting lineup feature three guards Antonio Burks, Dajuan Wagner, and Anthony Rice -- for only the second time this season, and the first since November 24th. Burks was, as usual, the catalyst, with 10 first-half points as he pushed the Tiger offense. Rices defense played a large part in holding the Cougar backcourt to a total of 8 points before halftime. However with Wise reduced to a spectators role, the Memphis big men -- Earl Barron and Chris Massie -- failed to take advantage of their smaller opponent (Houstons tallest starter was 68). Truscott, with 12 first-half points, outscored Barron and Massie combined (9), as Houston went into the locker room up, 33-31.
Until Duane Erwin entered the game five minutes into the second half, the Tiger bench had been of little value. What had been considered a team strength before the season began had become somewhat of an Achilles heel as Tiger reserves had contributed fewer than 10 points in each of the last two games. While they were only good for five in the matinee with Houston, Erwin had his most pivotal showing of the season, with six
rebounds and three blocked shots in but 10 minutes of play.
A pair of slashing field goals by Wagner gave Memphis a 57-50 lead with 11:14 to play, but the Tigers were unable to stop Houstons inside scoring long enough to pull away. Over the last 7:30 of the contest, the Tigers hit 10 of 12 free throws, but were able to convert only two field goals. Down a point after Smiths late trey, Houston was called for traveling, giving Memphis the ball with 19.1 seconds to play. The ball
wound up in the hands of sophomore swingman Scooter McFadgon (mired in the worst shooting slump in his two years at the U of M).
Having hit several clutch shots as a freshman, McFadgon had the credentials as he let fly with a clean jumper from the top of the key. The ball clanged off the iron, though, and into the hands of Barron, who missed a followup jumper to seal the Tigers fate.
With the loss, Memphis failed to clinch a tie for the Conference USA National Division title, and placed in some doubt their position in next months NCAA tournament. With a record now of 20-7, the Tigers are two victories shy of the 22 generally considered to be their punched ticket into the big dance. But two of their remaining three games will be tough road challenges at South Florida and Cincinnati.
Our hopes of where we want this season to go are still there, reflected Calipari. You cant say you want to win . . . youve got to show it. Lifes not easy. Weve put ourselves in a tough position. Were going to be in some close games, and were going to have to fight through them.
As for the coachs thoughts on Wise and his sprained knee? Its obvious that were hurting without him, said Calipari. But when Kelly comes back, will he make a difference? What does Kelly have to do with the way [his teammates] are playing? As the Tiger coach headed back to the floor for his postgame radio interview, there was no limp apparent.
Alas, no swagger either.