TIGERS REACH NIT QUARTERFINALS 

TIGERS REACH NIT QUARTERFINALS

UM 80-BYU 69 Considering the University of Memphis and its recent history on the hardwood with opposing Cougars (see University of Houston), Tiger fans were forced to avoid seeing a bad omen in the arrival of Brigham Young University at The Pyramid Wednesday night. The second round NIT battle was the first time Memphis faced BYU since the 1992 Maui Invitational. (Even with Penny Hardaway in the lineup, the Tigers lost that contest in overtime.) The U of M and these blue-and-silver-clad Cougars tipped off for a nationally televised game that would send the winner to the NIT quarterfinals for a date with Tennessee Tech. The omen Ñ sigh of relief Tiger Nation Ñ proved to be no more than coincidental nomenclature. The Tigers’ freshman star, Dajuan Wagner, scored 24 points to lead an efficient Memphis attack and end BYU’s season, 80-69. With a victory Saturday (tip-off against Tennessee Tech is set for noon at The Pyramid), Memphis (24-9, 18-2 at home) will advance to the NIT semifinals in New York’s Madison Square Garden for the second consecutive year and third time in school history (the 1957 squad fell to Bradley in the finals). “This was a good win for us,” said coach John Calipari, his shirt various shades of blue from two hours of perspiration-producing game management. “Without Kelly [Wise, out with a knee injury for the better part of a month], we slipped. But they’ve figured out we can play without him. We’re even better when he does play.” Wise did indeed take the floor seven minutes into the contest, and by the sound of the crowd, you’d have guessed there were far more than 7,201 Tiger fans greeting the wounded but game senior. He was cold, missing a pair of field goal attempts and half of his four free throws during 9 minutes of first-half action. More than any contribution on the scoreboard, Wise seemed to fuel the spirit of a team already juiced for another trip to the Big Apple. With Wagner hot from beyond the arc and Antonio Burks pressing the offensive tempo against the slower Cougars, the Tigers raced out to a 31-13 advantage over the game’s first 15 minutes. Without question, the play of the game came merely five minutes after tip-off following a BYU bucket. The inbounds pass went straight to Burks who received the ball near halfcourt, spun and dribbled directly toward the opposite field goal, through a pair of Cougar defenders, drawing a foul, and converting the layup. What made the play breathtaking is that it happened . . . in three seconds. When the shot fell through the net, the shot-clock displayed 32 seconds. Burks’ near-supernatural quickness was such that, if you so much as took the time to jot down a note, you missed the play. (Don't ask who threw that inbounds pass.) Burks’ ball-handling wizardry and Chris Massie’s inside play (16 points and 6 rebounds) were integral in Memphis shooting 52 percent for the game, enough to offset a BYU club that drained 8 of 13 three-point attempts and managed to pull within 7 with less than 10 minutes to play. Memphis had an emotional charge to their play, though, an element missing in lackluster performances against the likes of Houston and UAB. “[BYU] never quit,” stressed Calipari. “They did not go away. I’m proud of my team. We didn’t back off. Other than Houston [in the Conference USA tournament], this team has responded all year. I’m proud of them.” With 24 points, Wagner reached 695 for the season and passed Keith Lee for the third highest single-season total in Memphis history. The honorable mention All-America will certainly become the third Tiger ever to score 700 in a single campaign Saturday afternoon and is well within reach of the Memphis record (Hardaway’s 729 in 1992-93). Wagner has now scored at least 20 points in 21 of the Tigers’ 33 games. With the victory, Memphis has as many wins as in any season since they won 26 in 1986-87. (The 1994-95 squad finished 24-10.)

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