Tuesday, March 20, 2018

U of M Introduces Coach Hardaway

Posted By on Tue, Mar 20, 2018 at 12:04 PM

If spring comes packaged with hope, the season's arrival Tuesday brought an extra dose for anyone remotely interested in University of Memphis basketball. The worst-kept secret in town was made official at the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center when the U of M formally introduced Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway as the 19th head coach in the program's long, proud history. The 46-year-old Hardaway — a native Memphian — succeeds Tubby Smith, who was dismissed last week after two years of sagging attendance at FedExForum. Smith's Tigers went 40-26 over the two seasons and the former coach has three years and more than $9 million remaining on his contract.

This is the first college job of any kind for Hardaway, who attended what was then called Memphis State University for three years in the early Nineties and later returned to earn a bachelor's degree in professional studies. He was a two-time Great Midwest Conference Player of the Year as a Tiger and a consensus All-America in 1993. The third pick in the 1993 NBA draft, Hardaway enjoyed a 15-year career as a pro, most notably with the Orlando Magic, for whom he was a four-time All-Star and twice named first-team All-NBA. He captured a gold Medal as a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. Since retiring in 2008, Hardaway has built one of the country's top AAU programs (Team Penny) and top high school programs, his East High Mustangs winning their third consecutive state title just last Saturday in Murfreesboro. Having first established legendary credentials at Treadwell High School, Hardaway was a 2014 inductee in the National High School Hall of Fame.

The new coach spent less than five minutes on the dais. Too many hands to shake and necks to hug in the new training facility's packed rotunda. Highlights from Hardaway's remarks:

We need to get back to those old-school days at the Mid-South Coliseum and the Pyramid. I miss those days. We've got to get them back.

I'm dedicated to the team that just finished [the 2017-18] season. I've told them that it was unfair — to them — that nobody really showed up [at FedExForum]. Those days are gone. We're going to move forward with these guys and also bring some really good talent here that the city of Memphis will want to see on a nightly basis.

It's great to see so many familiar faces from when I played, the people who have been so supportive. It's a family reunion. I want to see the Memphis flags waving from cars, see the t-shirts and hats.

As a coach, my style . . . we're gonna get after it. We'll play hard-nosed basketball, running, jumping, pressing everywhere. Losing is not an option in my mind. I want to hit the ground running. People are telling me to be patient, do this or that first. But I'm not built that way. I'm not wired that way. I'll go for it all or none at all.

Look at this facility. It speaks to the dedication of the donors and boosters. This has come a long way from the field house where I practiced. The older players — Kenny Moody, Elliot Perry — they know. We just wanted to win basketball games. But how can you not love this facility, to bring kids here to grind and work and put a product out on the court that you can be proud of.

Hardaway's Tiger career ended this month 25 years ago. Or it seemed then. On a rainy spring Tuesday, in a facility built for champions, it seemed like Hardaway's Tiger career has just begun.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Three Thoughts on Coach Hardaway

Posted By on Mon, Mar 19, 2018 at 8:34 AM

With the imminent hiring of Penny Hardaway as the 19th basketball coach in Memphis Tiger history, I've had a few thoughts delivering no-look passes in my head.

Rare is the star player who becomes a star coach, and this seems especially the case in basketball. The gold standard, of course, is Bill Russell. The Celtics legend won a pair of NBA titles as Boston's coach, but he had the luxury of an all-time great at center: himself. Larry Bird took Indiana to the 2000 NBA Finals (where the Pacers lost to the Lakers), but he hasn't coached a game since. Clyde Drexler coached for two forgettable years at his alma mater, the University of Houston, and Kevin McHale had some success with the Houston Rockets (he was fired early in his fifth season on the bench). Patrick Ewing just went 15-15 in his first season as coach at Georgetown. Since Hardaway's playing days, the only first-team All-NBA player to take a coach's seat has been Jason Kidd, and he was recently fired by the Milwaukee Bucks. There's a reason we don't recall Coach Chamberlain, Coach Robertson, or Coach Jordan.

To begin with, men with extraordinary talents can find it challenging to teach younger men with more ordinary skills. Larry Bird the player had no trouble draining a three-pointer from the corner with two men guarding him in a game's final minute. Why can't his players?!? Kidd saw angles and openings on the hardwood that few other players even knew were there. Why can't his players?!?

Another component to this dichotomy is something we'll call "mountaintop syndrome." Star players tend to win championships and accolades, making them somewhat less motivated — less hungry — for glory in a suit and tie. And this is where I find Hardaway's situation so intriguing. Penny was a glorious player, but never quite reached the mountaintop. He didn't win a state title at Treadwell. As a sophomore at Memphis State, his Tigers fell a game short of the Final Four. (They lost in the opening round in 1993, his final season in blue and gray.) He helped the Orlando Magic reach the 1995 NBA Finals, but they were swept by the Rockets. Hardaway's a compelling case for the Hall of Fame, but not yet an inductee. (If Jamaal Wilkes is a Hall of Famer, so is Penny, however abbreviated his career may have been.)

I'm guessing there's still a fire in Hardaway's belly for the kind of championship hardware that truly makes for basketball immortality. It may be the factor that separates him from other superstars unable to thrive in a coach's office.

Hardaway is a young coach only relative to his 66-year-old predecessor. Hardaway turns 47 in July, making him older when he coaches his first Tiger game than Larry Finch was when he coached his last. (Finch was merely 35 when he replaced Dana Kirk as Tiger coach in 1986.) Gene Bartow was 40 when he was named Tiger coach in 1970, Kirk 44 (in 1979), and John Calipari 41 (in 2000). In part because of his nickname, Hardaway will always be somewhat of a kid in these parts. His playing style was as electrifying — as young — as any we remember. But Hardaway's at a life stage where a major college coaching job fits him. His players and staff will know who occupies the boss's office.

• Hardaway changes his phone number. A lot. He's nowhere near the recluse fellow Tiger great Keith Lee has become. Hardaway is actually the rare Tiger fan who's been a regular at FedExForum the last few years, in a courtside seat, no less. And he's delightful when approached, as all grown men called "Penny" must be.

But you get the impression Hardaway doesn't necessarily love a camera and microphone. People much closer to the Tiger program than I am have had difficulty reaching him. Cameras and microphones are getting ready to be new appendages for this man. The media glare will only intensify when things go very well (or very poorly) with Tiger basketball, and particularly under Hardaway's watch. It will be interesting — maybe cringe-worthy in the first few months — to see how this hometown legend returns the community hug he's been offered. He's no longer just a Memphis Tiger legend, but the face and voice of the program. And that voice cannot go silent. Should Hardaway wonder about that, he can ask his old pal Larry Porter how it worked out for him.

ESPN's Jeff Goodman is reporting Hardaway has agreed to take the Memphis job. The official press conference announcing the move is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tubby Smith Out as Tiger Basketball Coach

Posted By on Wed, Mar 14, 2018 at 12:06 PM

Tubby Smith has been dismissed as University of Memphis men's basketball coach. His departure comes with three years and more than $9 million remaining on his contract. (Terms of his buyout will be updated when made available.) Smith announced he is no longer the Tiger head coach after a brief meeting Wednesday morning with U of M president David Rudd.

A brief statement from the university was released after Wednesday's meeting: "After considerable deliberations and in the best financial interests of the University of Memphis, an agreement of separation with head men's basketball coach Tubby Smith has been reached."
  • Larry Kuzniewski
Smith posted an overall record of 40-26 over his two seasons at the Memphis helm, but failed to get the Tigers to the postseason (NCAA tournament or NIT), extending a drought that now measures four years. A significant portion of his roster at the end of the 2016-17 season — most notably brothers Dedric and K.J. Lawson — chose to transfer with eligibility remaining. This forced Smith and his staff to replenish the program with junior-college transfers like Kyvon Davenport, Kareem Brewton, and Mike Parks. Smith was unable to land prize recruits, including local talent like East High's Alex Lomax or Cordova's Tyler Harris. Worst of all for Smith, attendance at FedExForum plummeted to an average of 6,225 in 2017-18, the lowest figure since the Tigers played at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1969-70 (the year before Larry Finch first suited up for Memphis State).

Memphis is the first of six career stops on Smith's head-coaching resume where he failed to take a team to the NCAA tournament. He has taken teams to the Sweet Sixteen nine times (but not since 2005) and won the 1998 national championship with Kentucky. He leaves Memphis with a career record of 597-302.

Rumors have been swirling for weeks that former Tiger and NBA star Penny Hardaway will be hired to succeed Smith. Hardaway is currently coaching the East High Mustangs, a team favored to win its third straight state title this week in Murfreesboro. The Tiger job would be the first college gig for Hardaway who happens to be a few months older than Finch was when he was fired by the university after the 1996-97 season.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Memo to Penny Hardaway

Posted By on Mon, Mar 12, 2018 at 8:46 AM


TO: Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway

FROM: your hometown

RE: the new gig

It will never get better than right now, Penny. Soak it in. Absorb the energy of a region still astounded by the breathtaking basketball skills of a player who mixed Magic, Bird, and Michael into one spindly package of All-America sunshine over two winters in Memphis and a few more professionally as an All-NBA guard. That spontaneous outburst of affection at your opening press conference? Just wait for opening night of the 2018-19 Memphis Tiger season.

Some of us still like to consider the Pyramid "the House that Penny Built," as your two seasons there remain the pointy building's most memorable attraction, no matter the height of America's "tallest freestanding elevator." By that definition, you literally helped shape the Bluff City skyline. And you've been doing so, by other measures, long since Tiger basketball — and our NBA Grizzlies — moved into FedExForum.

Soak it in, Penny, because here come the expectations. And the more prominent a new college basketball coach's standing in a community, the higher those expectations tend to be. And this is Memphis, Penny. There were times you could look down at the rim as you dunked a basketball. Well, the bar just got higher.
  • NBAE/Getty Images
  • All-NBA. Twice.

A college basketball coach must do three things well to keep his job: recruit, win games, and sell tickets. Not that long ago, Josh Pastner was hired to coach the Tigers precisely because of his precocious recruiting talent. And man, did he recruit. Remember when Austin Nichols and Nick King were both destined to join you as All-America Tigers? (Well, King became one. At Middle Tennessee.) Attracting highly ranked talent got Pastner only so far, though. He didn't win enough games over his last two seasons and, worse, people stopped buying season tickets, quit showing up for Tiger games at FedExForum.

Your predecessor, Tubby Smith, won 60 percent of his games as the Tiger coach, but sold even fewer tickets than Pastner. The man has a national championship on his resume, but he seems to have lost whatever touch he had as a recruiter, and Memphis is no juco basketball town. Now Smith will be paid by the University of Memphis not to coach the Tigers.

You can handle this, Mr. Hardaway. Surely you can. Pennies may be made of zinc, but you have the Midas touch anywhere near the hardwood. Team Penny. The East High Mustangs. You win games, in part, because the best players want to play for you. They want to feel some of the magic still in your veins all these years after your trip to the NBA Finals with that team in Orlando. They will come to the Tiger program to feel that magic. Oh yes, they will come.

Now about those standards, that elevated bar mentioned earlier. It's the Final Four, Penny. You must take us back to the Final Four. (And please, let us keep the banner this time.) A trip to the Sweet Sixteen would be an acceptable warm-up. (Next season, please.) But it's the Final Four or even a Penny will get devalued in Memphis. Surely you recall Larry Finch's send-off. One of two or three basketball figures who could approximate your popularity here — and the man who convinced you to stay home and become a Tiger — Finch signed his termination papers on the Pyramid concourse not quite two years after taking Memphis to the Sweet Sixteen. Only five years after coaching your first Tiger team all the way to the Elite Eight.

It's the Final Four, Penny. Nothing short.

In your 46-year lifetime, exactly two Tiger coaches have left for what can be called greener basketball pastures: Gene Bartow in 1974 and John Calipari amid scandal in 2009. And neither Bartow nor Calipari grew up in Memphis, starred in both high school and college here, then returned to help make his hometown a better place for generations to come. Pardon us for being dramatic — no this is Memphis Tiger basketball, so let's get dramatic — but welcome to your birthright. It will never get better than right now, Penny.

Or will it?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

AAC semifinals: #8 Cincinnati 70, Tigers 60

Posted By on Sat, Mar 10, 2018 at 5:13 PM

The 8th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats utilized an 18-2 run to open the second half and erase a 13-point deficit, a surge that proved devastating to the Tigers' upset hopes. With 17 points and 12 rebounds from American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Gary Clark, Cincinnati may well have ended the Tigers' season and the Memphis coaching tenure of Tubby Smith.

Having posted a record of 21-13, the Tigers will await Sunday's announcement of the 32-team National Invitation Tournament field, their only chance at postseason play. Should they not receive a bid, it will be four straight years without significant March basketball for the U of M.

The Tigers took control early in Saturday's game, fueled by the red-hot touch of freshman guard Jamal Johnson, who hit five three-pointers before halftime on his way to 17 points in the first 20 minutes. But Johnson didn't score after halftime and Kyvon Davenport was the only other Tiger to reach double-figures in the scoring column (12 points). Memphis shot a miserable 35 percent from the field for the game, missing 22 of 27 second-half shots.

Cincinnati improved to 29-4 with the win and will face Houston in the tournament championship game Sunday. The third-seeded Cougars upset Wichita State, 77-74.

Should the Tigers not receive an NIT bid, offseason discussion will begin with Smith's status as head coach. Despite three years remaining on his contract, Smith seems like a casualty of efforts to bring aboard Tiger legend — and current East High School coach — Penny Hardaway. Hardaway's Mustangs will be playing in the Tennessee state tournament next week. In two years at Memphis, Smith has posted a record of 40-26.

Friday, March 9, 2018

AAC Tourney: Tigers 67, Tulsa 64

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2018 at 3:42 PM

He's done this before.

Tiger guard Kareem Brewton connected on a three-pointer with one second left on the game clock to help Memphis upset Tulsa in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament Friday in Orlando. Filling in for injured point guard Jeremiah Martin, Brewton pulled off the same heroics he did in the Tigers' overtime win at Temple on January 13th. With the victory, Memphis advances to a semifinal matchup Saturday with Cincinnati, regular-season champions of the AAC.

With their seventh win in eight games, the Tigers improved to 21-12 for the season and may have inched closer to a bid in the National Invitation Tournament. Tulsa falls to 19-12 with the loss.

Memphis capitalized on miserable Tulsa shooting early to take a 25-16 lead, but turnovers allowed the Golden Hurricane to close the first half on a 9-0 run, reducing the Tiger lead to 26-25. The Tigers extended their lead to 11 (48-37) midway through the second half, but Tulsa enjoyed a 22-8 run to take a 59-56 lead with less than three minutes to play.

There were three lead changes in the final two minutes, the biggest shot for Memphis a three-pointer by Kyvon Davenport with 29 seconds left to give the Tigers a 64-63 lead. Martins Igbanu hit one of two free throws with four seconds to go to tie the game before Brewton's game-winner.

Brewton and Davenport led the Tigers with 15 points, Mike Parks added 14, and Jamal Johnson scored 12 (including three three-pointers).

Memphis lost both its meetings with 8th-ranked Cincinnati this winter, the first by 34 points in Ohio on December 31st, then by 14 points at FedExForum on January 27th. Tip-off Saturday is scheduled for noon.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

AAC Tourney: Tigers 79, USF 77

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2018 at 3:48 PM

Tubby Smith remains the head coach of the University of Memphis Tigers. At least for a day.

Amid swirling rumors that he'll be replaced at season's end by Penny Hardaway, Smith led the Tigers to a win over the USF Bulls in the opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament in Orlando. The win comes exactly a week after the Bulls (10-22) embarrassed the Tigers, 75-51, at FedExForum.

USF reduced a nine-point halftime deficit to just three and had a chance to tie the game in the the closing seconds but Stephan Jiggetts misfired from three-point range.

Kyvon Davenport led the Tigers with a season-high 27 points (and nine rebounds) and freshman David Nickelberry came off the bench and tied his own season high with 14 points (12 of them in the first half). Kareem Brewton added 12 points in his fourth start since Jeremiah Martin's season-ending foot injury. Memphis shot a stellar 57 percent from the field and connected on eight of 17 three-point attempts.

The win gives Memphis (20-12) its first 20-win season since the 2013-14 campaign and keeps hope alive for a possible bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

The Tigers will play Tulsa in the AAC quarterfinals Friday afternoon (tip-off at 1 p.m.). The Golden Hurricane finished the regular season 19-11 and split a pair of games with Memphis, losing by nine points at FedExForum on January 6th and beating the Tigers by 13 in Oklahoma on January 20th.

Monday, March 5, 2018

AAC Tourney Preview

Posted By on Mon, Mar 5, 2018 at 10:11 AM

Here we are again.

After winning five of their last six games, the 2017-18 Memphis Tigers finished their regular season with a record of 19-12. Which is precisely the mark they posted at this stage of the 2016-17 season. The Tigers again finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference, though one win better (10-8) than they were a year ago in league play.

Last season, fifth place earned the Tigers a bye into the AAC tournament quarterfinals. With 12 teams now, the AAC only rewards a bye to four teams, so Memphis will face the USF Bulls in a first-round game Thursday in Orlando. The game will take place precisely a week after the league's cellar-dweller embarrassed the Tigers at FedExForum.

The AAC tournament has not been kind to Memphis. In three of the four tourneys to date, the Tigers lost their opening game (last season to UCF by 30 points). They made a run to the tournament championship game two years ago, only to bow out against UConn in what proved to be Josh Pastner's final game as Tiger head coach.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Parks Jr.

Memphis will not play in the NCAA tournament a fourth straight season, the longest such drought in these parts since 1997-2002 (six years). And only with a run in the AAC tournament might Memphis earn a bid to the second-tier NIT. (A miss there would mean no postseason play for a fourth straight season, which hasn't happened since 1978-81.) How can the Tigers find some fun near Disney World? There are three keys, and each of them has a name (and two arms, and two legs).

1) Mike Parks Jr. — The closest thing to a true center Memphis has suited up in years (though just 6'8"), Parks was averaging 4.2 points and 3.0 rebounds after the Tigers' loss to Cincinnati on December 31st. Seventeen games later (ten of them wins), Parks's numbers are 8.1 and 4.4. Not the kind of figures that land you on draft boards, but Parks generally plays well in Tiger wins (20 points and eight boards in Sunday's win over East Carolina) and poorly in Tiger losses (two points, two rebounds, and three fouls in 12 minutes in the loss to USF on March 1st). The Tigers enjoyed two four-game winning streaks in conference play and Parks averaged 15.5 points over these eight games.

2) Kareem Brewton Jr. — Brewton found some extra life in his game after point guard Jeremiah Martin (the AAC's scoring champion) went down with a left-foot injury in the first half of the Tigers' upset of Houston on February 22nd. His 12 points and seven assists helped fuel the Tigers' win at UConn on February 25th and he scored a season-high 22 points (with six assists) in the Memphis win over ECU last weekend. Like Parks, Brewton disappeared in the loss to USF (one for ten from the field in 37 minutes). Basketball teams don't generally win in March without steady play from their point guard. For this week, at least, Kareem Brewton is the Memphis Tigers' point guard.

3) Kyvon Davenport — The third juco transfer on this list is one of just four AAC players to average as many as 12.8 points and 6.0 rebounds this season. When you factor in Martin's late-season injury, Davenport has been the steadiest player at coach Tubby Smith's disposal for 31 games. He failed to score at least 10 points only six times. If the Tigers are to advance this week, multiple players will have to make up the absence of Martin's 18.9 points per game. Davenport is the most capable option for filling that void.

Even after the dreadful loss to USF, Davenport said his team "still has something to play for." It was optimistic talk in the aftermath of a defeat that may cost this team an NIT bid. But come Thursday, Memphis does indeed have something to play for. If three players rise to their best in Orlando, a few ugly memories from a rocky winter can be erased.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Tigers 90, East Carolina 70

Posted By on Sun, Mar 4, 2018 at 5:52 PM

The Tigers closed out their regular season Sunday afternoon at FedExForum by gaining a measure of revenge for one of their ugliest losses of the season. Kareem Brewton scored 22 points and Mike Parks added 20 as Memphis easily handled the ECU Pirates, a month to the day after losing an overtime game in Greenville, North Carolina.

With the win, the Tigers finish the regular season with an overall record of 19-12, identical to their mark at this stage a year ago. Memphis posted a 10-8 record in the American Athletic Conference, good enough for fifth in the 12-team league. (It's the first 10-win conference season for Tiger coach Tubby Smith since his 2004-05 campaign at Kentucky.)
Tubby Smith
  • Tubby Smith

The Tigers will get another chance to avenge an ugly loss in the first round of the AAC tournament in Orlando. They'll play USF Thursday (1 p.m.), precisely a week after losing by 24 points to the Bulls at home. A win would give Memphis its first 20-win season since 2013-14 and earn a spot in the AAC quarterfinals Friday against Tulsa.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

USF 75, Tigers 51

Posted By on Thu, Mar 1, 2018 at 11:25 PM

So much for life without Jeremiah Martin. After a pair of wins without their star point guard, the Tigers suffered their worst home loss in memory Thursday night at FedExForum. The USF Bulls — 1-15 in the American Athletic Conference and number 295 (out of 351) in the RPI rankings entering the contest — led start-to-finish, taking a 22-point lead at halftime and never allowing the Tigers to close within 20 after the break. The win was the Bulls' second since Christmas and the Tigers' second-worst loss of the season as measured by scoring margin. (They lost by 34 at Cincinnati on New Year's Eve.)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jimario Rivers

Memphis fell to 18-12 with the loss and is now 9-8 in league play. Much, if not all, of the spirit built over a four-game winning streak was broken by the beat-down at the hands of the Bulls. You could see it in a disconsolate coach Tubby Smith after the game, and hear it in the words he spoke. "I'm really disappointed in us," he said. "I obviously did something wrong in preparing for this game. We weren't ready. Physically or mentally. We went through pretty the same routines we normally go through. But I give [USF] credit. They played hard, and we didn't respond."

The Tigers had more turnovers (10) than field goals (8) at halftime. Forward Payton Banks hit four of six three-point attempts in the first half to help the Bulls gain separation. More often than not, Tiger defenders dropped under screens as opposed to fighting over them to crowd USF's long-distance shooters. Banks finished with a game-high 19 points, a total matched by reserve forward Malik Martin, who connected on eight of ten field-goal attempts.

The Tigers couldn't find their shooting touch from anywhere on the court. They missed 10 of 18 free-throw attempts and 16 of 19 three-point shots. Kareem Brewon — Martin's replacement at point guard — missed nine of ten shots from the field. Brewton, Jamal Johnson, and Raynere Thornton missed all 11 of their combined three-point attempts. (Thornton had hit nine of 11 treys in the Tigers' last two wins to earn the AAC's Player of the Week honors.) Junior forward Kyvon Davenport led Memphis with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Senior forward Jimario Rivers scored 11 points in his penultimate game at FedExForum.

"Some guys looked at this game as an easy win," acknowledged Rivers. "Look at their record. But that's something we can't do. It's a matter of us focusing."

"We gave them too many uncontested shots," added Davenport. "We definitely played bad, but it's nothing to hang your head about. We still have something to play for."

About all the Tigers have left to play for is an AAC tournament championship, and the unlikely NCAA tournament bid such a run would provide. Thursday's loss all but eliminates the Tigers' chances of a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

"You gotta guard against prosperity," said Smith. "You have to appeal to their pride, of getting better every day. You gotta practice harder, to get mentally ready, tougher. They out-toughed us. They made shots early, and we had no answer."

A lopsided, disjointed regular season will come to a close Sunday when East Carolina visits FedExForum. The lowly Pirates beat Memphis in overtime on February 3rd.

"I hope this got their attention," said Smith. "Hopefully a new vision, a new spirit. It's going to be tough. I'm at a loss. We tried to duplicate how we won those games [during the streak]. But we didn't have energy. They were better than we were in every facet of the game."
    • Pennyspeak


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