The Memphis Tigers live in a harrowing world of basketball purgatory.
Having seen all of their better, long-term rivals flee to power conferences, the Tigers tower over the rest of Conference USA, casting a shadow that obscures light from the rest of the conference.
As Memphis adds victories to its phenomenal in-conference winning streak, which is now 55 games after a 71-60 triumph over the UAB Blazers, the no-win situation it faces every game day only becomes more excruciating.
Should the Tigers (25-3, 13-0 in Conference USA this season) win, their detractors will say, "Look who they beat, another C-USA patsy."
Should Memphis lose, the team is proving that its earlier success was a fluke, and surely this is the start of a slide as the postseason looms. Forget about a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and kiss that top-10 ranking goodbye.
Never mind that the Blazers (19-9, 9-4) are far from a second-rate basketball team. Led by the extremely talented trio of Paul Delaney, Lawrence Kinnard, and Robert Vaden, UAB can score in bunches in the post or from long distance.
They are also an adequate defensive team, loaded with experience, and are particularly formidable at home, entering last night’s contest with a 12-0 mark at Bartow Arena this season.
This game had all the markings of an ambush.
Both teams came out hyped up, perhaps too much so. At one point, with the score tied at seven, each club was 3-for-12 from the floor with four turnovers. Though both defenses had been stout up until that point, a large part of the problem was sloppy play and poor shooting on each side.
As the game wore on, the nervous energy dissipated and the jitters faded, and the offenses began to flow more freely. The first half was a true see-saw affair that had the teams head to the locker rooms tied at 28 apiece. The session was marked by seven ties and six lead changes.
The second period, in stark contrast, was a game of runs.
Memphis opened the half with a 14-6 surge to zip to a 42-34 advantage. Tiger fans could be heard letting out a collective sigh of relief. It appeared that the home team was wearing down and succumbing to the will of the fifth-ranked juggernaut.
UAB fought back gamely, snapping off a scintillating 9-0 spurt of its own, highlighted by five points from a red-hot Kinnard, who finished the night with game highs of 25 points and 11 rebounds. Just like that, the Blazers had forged into the lead at 50-49.
The entire complexion of the game changed with under six minutes to go in the contest. With the Birmingham crowd on its feet and going generally berserk, Antonio Anderson (16 points, two rebounds, and three assists while playing all 40 minutes) scored despite being pummeled by the Blazers’ Channing Toney.
He missed the bonus free throw, but Robert Dozier (15 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks, and three steals) managed a strong rebound, made the layup, absorbed Howard Crawford’s fourth foul, and completed a three-point play to stake the Tigers to a 54-50 lead with 5:35 remaining in the game.
Memphis would trail no more on the night, as the unique five-point possession jump-started a 21-10 run to end the game.
The final nail in UAB’s coffin came on a Doneal Mack three-pointer with 2:36 remaining. The possession had been extended by a Shawn Taggart offensive rebound. Mack’s triple pushed the Tiger advantage to 63-55.
Had UAB come up with the defensive board and scored on the other end, it could have turned the clash into a one-possession game. Instead, the Tigers began to pour on the offense and put distance between themselves and UAB.
Balance was a key to the victory for Memphis. Mack led the charge with 17 points (14 in the second half), followed by Anderson’s 16, Dozier’s 15 points, and Taggart’s 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Delaney supported Kinnard’s night with 18 and Toney chipped in 11. Senior sharpshooter Robert Vaden suffocated under the defensive prowess of Anderson, going scoreless on 0-for-17 shooting.
The Tigers’ marquee freshman sensation, Tyreke Evans, struggled woefully as well. Evans had easily his worst outing of the season, scoring just eight points on 3-for-14 shooting and committing a season-high nine turnovers. When he wasn’t looking sluggish and disinterested, his play was sloppy and undisciplined.
In the end, however, Memphis displayed the poise that has made it a threat for the past three postseasons, taking advantage of UAB’s lack of depth (just nine players and six lettermen) to grind the home team down.
Perhaps unfortunately for both the Blazers and Tigers, this game was (rightfully) seen as the Blazers’ last real chance to secure a bid to March Madness, short of winning in Conference USA tournament play.
With the tourney played at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, their odds are not great, and UAB only has one signature victory (72-71 at Arizona) this season.
This leaves the U of M with no one in its own conference to push the team to greater heights.
Next season, the Tigers’ out-of-conference schedule will be insanely treacherous: Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Louisville, Syracuse, and Tennessee, among others. North Carolina looms on the horizon in 2011.
Nothing defines a team quite like its conference rivals, however. Conference USA continues to improve, but at a slow pace. National media around the country will always question the Tigers’ credentials as long as other conference teams fail to develop as legitimate threats.
For the time being, though, Memphis fans are free to enjoy yet another gritty win in conference play, on their way to a high seed at the NCAA tournament. UAB fans must be satisfied with a likely trip to the NIT.