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Memphis blues (cont.)

Posted: Sunday February 24, 2008 2:40AM; Updated: Sunday February 24, 2008 3:01AM
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Tigers fans who had packed Beale Street in the hours before this game had been gearing up for a fitting, encore celebration. Instead they headed home with an ugly image etched in their minds: That of a Memphis-born kid, Volunteers forward J.P. Prince, popping the "Tennessee" on his orange jersey toward the crowd after the buzzer. (Perhaps adding insult to injury, Tigers fan/advisor/unofficial recruiter William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley jumped out onto the court to congratulate the Vols.) Prince scored all 13 of his points in the second half -- including two huge free throws with 8.8 seconds left to put the Vols up three points, after which they fouled Rose to seal the victory.

Prince headed to Arizona out of high school after being recruited by the Tigers; his father was once a coach on the pre-Calipari Memphis staff, and J.P. was a fan of the Tigers as a kid. As the story goes, Prince's unwillingness to make a timely commitment caused Memphis to offer its final scholarship to Douglas-Roberts instead. When Prince opted to transfer away from Tucson during his sophomore season, he said, "Coach Cal never called me. And from what I know, Coach Cal didn't want me."

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Tennessee wanted Prince; Pearl even admitted to calling Calipari for a scouting report on Prince before accepting his transfer to to the Vols. It was Calipari who infamously referred to Prince as "P.J. Prince" earlier in the week -- and on Saturday, after showing his hometown what it had missed out on, Prince said, "I bet he won't say my name wrong now."

Prince had a strange way of motivating himself for revenge on Memphis: he admitted to going to sleep, on Friday night, wearing a pair of Champion-brand Memphis shorts "from way back" when he was young. "My mom was like, why are you sleeping in those?" he said, "but I just told her I wanted to do it."

Prince said it had helped him to dream about this 66-62 outcome, one that "I couldn't have written any better."

Tyler Smith, who transferred to Tennessee this season from Iowa, and led the Vols in scoring on Saturday with 16 points, said the Tigers had energized him prior to the game by "trying to get up near our huddle" and "talking crazy" in the tunnel leading to the court. This was a Memphis tactic that was previously seen in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, when the Tigers yelled at a young USC team as it emerged from its locker room. It worked in December, but here, it backfired. "We just wanted to take care of our own business," said Smith, "and I think our play spoke for itself."

Smith wasn't all business, however: As another Tennessee-bred talent, he couldn't resist doing a few jersey-pops along with Prince at the game's conclusion. Pearl had been hammering one message into their heads for the past few days: We're not sure if we're the best team in the nation, but we're 40 minutes away from being No. 1. Late Saturday night, that clock had hit zero, and the Vols had spoiled Memphis' party.

"We wanted to take over this city for the weekend," said Prince. "We wanted to make sure we left our mark. They were talking about perfection, and we wanted to quit all that."

What was the mark Tennessee left on Memphis, Price was asked?

"You need to ask them that," he said. And the answer that Memphis provides in the weeks to come, no doubt, will define their season.

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