- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

KANSAS CITY, Mo. | For whatever reason, morning tip times usually do not agree with Roburt Sallie.

Thursday, though, was an anomaly - and a fortuitous one for Memphis, which rallied past Cal State Northridge 81-70 to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament’s West regional at Sprint Center.

Sallie scored 35 points - a career high and the most for a Memphis player in an NCAA tournament game - as the Tigers (32-3) summoned a late run to avoid becoming the fifth No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 15 seed.

“They played us like teams in our league played us,” said Memphis coach John Calipari, whose team will meet 10th-seeded Maryland on Saturday. “They got after us, and they were not going away.”

Nor was Sallie, who seemed like the only energized player Memphis could deploy. Starters Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, Tyreke Evans and Shawn Taggart encountered foul trouble in the first half, and Doneal Mack stumbled through a scoreless performance.

Sallie, though, exploited a mix of zones that the Matadors (17-14) tossed out in an attempt to confound Memphis. It mostly worked, but eventually the Tigers figured out they could drive and kick the ball out to Sallie on the wing.

“I think my stats for morning games, I think I had a total of 13 points in four games,” Sallie said. “Coach gets on me at times because I don’t come to play sometimes in the morning games. But I think today I just stayed awake and focused the whole morning. It paid off.”

Amazingly, Sallie was mostly a bit player for Memphis before Thursday. His previous career high was 13 points, and he didn’t score in the Tigers’ Conference USA title game defeat of Tulsa last week. But with everyone else struggling, Sallie shot 10-for-15 from beyond the 3-point line.

“That’s not something my teammates expected me to do today,” Sallie said. “I’m just a shooter. I just hit shots today.”

Rodrigue Mels scored 15 points for the Matadors, the Big West champions who harbored hopes of becoming the first No. 15 seed since 2001 to advance to the second round.

It looked like a distinct possibility in the middle of the second half. Northridge built a 62-56 lead on Vincent Cordell’s basket with 10:11 remaining, capping a stretch in which the Matadors connected on 3-pointers and acrobatic drives to the basket with stunning efficiency.

“I think they were kind of shocked [that] these guys are in the game,” Northridge guard Mark Hill said. “People really don’t know of Cal State Northridge basketball. That’s what we wanted to show today.”

Ultimately, the team everyone knows recovered. After Calipari called a timeout, Sallie connected on a 3-pointer and then fed Anderson on a fast break. Anderson continued to bedevil the Matadors with baseline jumpers and put Northridge on the precipice when he made it 72-66 with 3:25 left.

Kenny Daniels inched the Matadors within four, but Sallie drilled 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to quash the upset possibility. It also dashed Northridge’s chances of joining Richmond, Santa Clara, Coppin State and Hampton in the pantheon of the tournament’s greatest giant slayers - but it didn’t entirely spoil the day.

“Obviously we played the game to win, and we didn’t want to lose,” said Northridge coach Bobby Braswell, whose program was making its second tournament appearance. “But if you keep things in perspective, this team will go down as one of the greatest at Cal State Northridge.”

Anderson dismissed the possibility that the Tigers were frightened before uncorking a 25-6 run in the closing stages to put away the Matadors. But it certainly was an unsettling moment for a Memphis bunch that hasn’t lost since before Christmas and plowed its way through its Conference USA schedule.

“They punched us in the mouth and maybe brought us back to earth,” Calipari said.

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