Saturday, April 5, 2008

SAN ANTONIO — Once Memphis at last arrived at college basketball’s final weekend under coach John Calipari, there was an inevitable comparison to conjure.

Surely this was the closest thing to UNLV and its 1990 title team in the nearly two decades since, right?

“We’re just little ol’ Memphis,” freshman Derrick Rose said.

Balderdash. And now, the Tigers have a spot in Monday night’s NCAA tournament final to disprove any doubts about their worthiness to be among the sport’s bluebloods, the reward for a steady 78-63 victory over UCLA tonight at the Alamodome.

“It still hasn’t hit me yet that we won the game,” Rose said. “But going into the game, we knew we were going to win. There ain’t too much to say.”

Mainly because Rose (25 points) and Chris Douglas-Roberts (28 points) dominated for the Tigers (38-1), who will meet the winner of last night’s late game between Kansas and North Carolina for a shot at the first title in program history.

It was the third straight year the Bruins (35-4) left the Final Four without a title, a script no doubt growing stale in Westwood. And just like the last two unfulfilling trips, UCLA found itself on the wrong end of an athleticism deficit it could not cope with.

“It’s disappointing. It’s hard to be here three years in a row and not come away with a championship,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “I thought this was our best team and our best chance, but Memphis State was the better team today and you have to credit them.”

The last two years, Howland’s defense-first bunch found eventual champion Florida’s frontcourt to be unstoppable in the paint. While burly Joey Dorsey (15 rebounds) did his share to counteract UCLA freshman Kevin Love (12 points) in the low post, it was the Tigers’ guards who shredded the Bruins this time.

Memphis dictated the pace at times, predictably thriving when permitted to run in the opening moments. But even when the Bruins effectively slowed it down the rest of the way, the Tigers found ways to rapidly fire outlet passes off rebounds to avoid contending with UCLA’s defense.

However, there was a solution to that quandary. Douglas-Roberts carved into the Bruins from the perimeter, slicing his way to either easy baskets or trips to the foul line. It was his dunk with 4:52 remaining that snapped a scoreless stretch of more than four minutes and made it 61-52.

Rose produced his latest maestro performance in the crucible of the postseason. His nine rebounds and four assists (against one turnover) were nearly as valuable as his scoring against the badgering Bruins.

Nearly. Rose passed on outside looks, not taking a 3-pointer for the night, and bored in on the Bruins once he realized they were weary from the early frenetic pace. While Darren Collison was a nonfactor (two points, five turnovers, five fouls), Rose was in complete control.

His whirling layup with 3:15 left to make it 63-52 all but finished off the Bruins. But just to be sure, Rose capped his night with six late free throws as the Tigers — much maligned for their work at the stripe — finished 20-for-23 at the foul line.

“I just wanted to get them tired so I could keep going,” Rose said. “The whole game, I was not going to take a jump shot. That was crazy. I was just going to go to the hole and get fouled and get to the line, and it worked out.”

While Memphis has not reached a title game since 1973, it is Calipari’s first-ever trip to the final. He made it to the Final Four with Massachusetts in 1996 — an achievement the NCAA later vacated — bolted for the NBA and bombed with the New Jersey Nets and then built a powerhouse this decade at Memphis.

Now, he might be less than 48 hours from the apogee of his profession.

“I’m coaching a dream team that gets along, they respect coaching and they take on their roles,” Calipari said. “I’m going to go right down to the Riverwalk and take a power walk and use up some energy and figure out who we’re playing Monday. I’m happy and excited for all that we’ve done.”

Yesterday, it was Calipari who observed UCLA and Memphis entered the Final Four with a combined 11 national titles.

It might just be an even dozen come Monday night.

Except this time, little ol’ Memphis has the shot at the championship.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide