This Memphis squad will be forever embedded in our thoughts. Welcome to our family, Tiger team of 2007-08.
A man who had caused so much grief for University of Memphis fans years earlier watched with keen interest as first Chris Douglas-Roberts then Derek Rose clanked free throws off the rim in the closing minutes of the 2008 NCAA title game. Still every bit a legend in the Lone Star State as he was while in college basketball’s most famous fraternity, Phi Slama Jama, he knew all too well the pain the Tigers were feeling on this night. “Been there, done that,” he might have told a stunned Tiger nation after watching Memphis’ epic collapse in the final moments of the NCAA title game, a 75-68 overtime loss to Kansas.
Michael Young was a member of the 1983 Houston Cougars’ team many consider the best of all time. The Cougars, like Memphis, were long, athletic and known for their acrobatic and sometimes ridiculous dunks. Houston had a 26-game winning streak, just like the Tigers of this year, but one other similarity — this one a bit eerie — led to the undoing of both teams.
“Our problem was free throws,” said Young, now an assistant coach for the Cougars. A miss of the front end of a one-and-one by freshman point guard Alvin Franklin in the closing minute could have sealed the game for Houston. A last second shot gave North Carolina State the win.
But leave it to a player who helped knock Memphis out of the tournament in 1983 and 1984 to offer words of comfort to Tiger fans.
“The best team doesn’t always win,” said Young. “There are so many things that can factor in.”
Like missed free throws.
Whether the Tigers will be remembered as one of college basketball’s all-time best is debatable, but there are numbers that strongly hint at just that. The Tigers tallied 38 wins on the season, the most ever by a collegiate team, and were ranked No. 1 for five weeks. They again marched through C-USA play unscathed and recorded their third straight 30-plus win season while boasting a 104-10 record during that span. Freshman guard Derrick Rose blossomed into one of the most talented players to ever don a Tiger uniform and certainly the best player at the Final Four. Chris Douglas-Roberts made several All-America squads, and Joey Dorsey was, well, Joey Dorsey. At season’s end, John Calipari became only the second person ever to be named the Naismith Coach of the Year twice.
And, to their credit, the Tigers — at least for a couple of fleeting moments — did give their fans the feeling of a national champion. If not for an incomprehensible ending that is still just that — plug in your own adjective — Memphis would be standing tall with a championship trophy.
“I thought we were national champions,” said Calipari moments after the game. So did tens of thousands of fans in San Antonio and around the world who were watching the game.
“Go ahead and send me that national championship t-shirt,” text messaged Adam Didyk, a former standout distance runner for the Tigers’ cross country team, from his home in Adelaide, Australia, with two minutes remaining.
In the title game, the Tigers appeared to be on cruise control late, leading 60-51 with 2:12 left. Several Jayhawk fans exited the arena; Tiger faithful clamorously celebrated. The only question that seemingly remained was would Douglas-Roberts or Rose grab the MVP trophy.
But just like that, the dream ended. A couple of missed free throws, a lazy pass and a 3-point shot by Mario Chalmers with 2.1 seconds remaining — try as you may, it is still impossible to erase — sent the game to overtime, and with Dorsey stuck on the bench with five fouls, you just had to know what was coming — Kansas scored the first six points of the extra period and never looked back.
“Devastating,” said Tiger fan Rose Wahlberg as she sat in the stands long after the final buzzer. “It came down to mere seconds.”
Despite the defeat, Memphis had finally shown the nation what Tiger fans knew all along, that this group was special, a “dream team,” as Calipari coined it. The tournament run began in Little Rock with an 87-63 thrashing of Texas-Arlington and then a 77-74 close call against Mississippi State. A 92-74 blowout of Michigan State was followed by an 85-67 dismantling of Texas in Houston that sent Memphis to the Final Four for the third time in the program’s history. In the semifinal game in San Antonio, the Tigers routed UCLA to send Memphis to the championship game.
The script just didn’t play out in the end. But like Tiger fan Carole Merritt said as she exited the Alamodome, “We will be back — that is a promise,” the future does look exceptionally bright for Memphis.
The Tigers received a commitment from highly touted guard Tyreke Evans, and with a nucleus of Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, Willie Kemp, Shawn Taggart, Jeff Robinson and Doneal Mack returning, ESPN writer Andy Katz has the Tigers listed at No. 9 on his 2008-09 preseason ranking. And with one of the best coaches in the nation at the helm, who knows, Memphis might just be dancing again next March — stay tuned.
Tigers still No. 1 to fans — by J.D. Wilson
April 8 was no ordinary Tuesday. Most Tiger fans probably didn’t feel like getting out of bed after watching the University of Memphis suffer a 75-68 loss to the University of Kansas in the NCAA championship game.
Tiger faithful had waited 35 years for another shot at a national title only to see victory slip away in the closing moments.
I woke up Tuesday and couldn’t think straight,” says Andrew Medlin, a U of M graduate student. “That feeling of shock was still pretty fresh.”
Before tip-off, bars and homes were packed with eager fans. They wore their Memphis gear and painted their faces blue. Tiger fever had certainly taken over the city. More than 50 percent of all the television households in the Memphis market were tuned into the game.
“On game day, it was hard to focus on anything but the game,” says Medlin. “I was nervous and excited all at the same time. Then we’re up by nine with two minutes left, and it dawned on me that Memphis might become the national champion.”
That lead evaporated though when Kansas guard Mario Chalmers tied the game with 2.1 seconds left in regulation, causing Medlin to slump farther and farther into his couch.
“I just put my head in my hands and said, ‘Oh no,’” Medlin says.
Freshman Shannon Young watched the game with a group of friends and had a similar reaction as the final seconds ticked away and a Tiger defeat went from unthinkable to reality.
“My jaw dropped,” says Young. “I was in shock, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be for our team.”
Even after the loss, Young and Medlin were proud of the Memphis squad.
“The Tigers gave a great effort,” says Young. “It was a big loss, but they’re still our team. They’ll always be No. 1 to me.”
Medlin adds, “I’m extremely proud of this group. This was a season to remember.”
With time, the frowns from that awful Monday have been replaced by thoughtful smiles and reflection. Different people have their own special memories of this season. Maybe it’s a Joey Dorsey dunk or a CDR floater in the lane. Maybe it’s the NCAA-record 38 wins or the Tigers’ imposing romp to the national championship game. But there is one thing that all Tiger fans got to share, and that’s the fantastic 23-week journey that led to San Antonio.