It takes more than talent
Memphis lets a national championship slip away
Posted: Tuesday April 8, 2008 3:26AM; Updated: Tuesday April 8, 2008 9:26AM
SAN ANTONIO -- You do realize what took place here Monday night at the Alamodome?
An intervention from the basketball gods.
How else to explain the cruel, yet utterly ironic ending that befell the Memphis Tigers against Kansas? How else to explain a team with two future lottery picks blowing a nine-point lead with two minutes left in the national championship game?
How else to explain a team whose coach spent the better part of a month downplaying his team's one glaring deficiency, free-throw shooting, by repeatedly assuring us, "We'll make them when they count" ... not making them when they counted?
Someone was surely watching Kansas' 75-68 overtime victory over Memphis from above, and surely, that person was a basketball coach. He or she apparently chose Monday night's game as an opportunity to send a refreshing message: Talent is not the sole prerequisite for a trophy.
"We should have won that game," Tigers coach John Calipari lamented outside the Memphis locker room following what can bluntly be called one of the biggest choke jobs in title-game history. His players echoed much the same theme.
They all gave the Jayhawks requisite credit for fighting back so admirably from the brink of collapse, for erasing a 60-51 deficit with just more than two minutes remaining in regulation. But they also knew well their own self-inflicted role in their demise.
"I missed two clutch free throws that would have put the game away," said Memphis' All-America guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, who in fact missed three in the final 1:15 of regulation. "That will haunt me."
"It definitely came back to haunt us," forward Robert Dozier said of his team's dubious 61.3-percent free-throw mark for the season (Memphis shot 63.2 percent Monday night). "But even with those [missed] free throws, we were still up three."
Indeed, right up until the final 2.1 seconds of regulation, it appeared the Tigers -- just as they had on 38 of 39 previous occasions -- were going to be rewarded in spite of their own Achilles' heel, not to mention several other vintage brain-dead moments. It appeared that yet again, Memphis' superior talent -- most notably that of its NBA All-Star in waiting, Derrick Rose -- was going to triumph over many of the virtues held sacred by hoops purists.
After falling behind 33-28 at halftime, the Tigers not only caught up, but eventually took command of the game, thanks to another virtuoso performance by their freshman point guard. Held to a lone three-point play in the first half, Rose scored 14 of Memphis' 16 points over a nine-minute stretch of the second half, many of them coming with his trademark, eye-popping flare.
The last of Rose's highlight-reel shots -- an off-balance, banked-in jumper from the wing as the shot-clock expired to put the Tigers up 56-49 with 4:14 left -- had the feel of a dagger. Kansas, as is its trademark, had played admirable defense on both Rose and Douglas-Roberts for most of the night, but what could it do against a guy hitting one circus shot after another?
But the Jayhawks had one smart trick saved in their back pockets.
"I mean, all along people have been talking about how bad a free-throw shooting team they are," said Kansas guard Mario Chalmers. "Coach [Bill] Self told us to foul a couple of their worst shooters."
And that's what they did, even though the deficit was still small and there was still ample time remaining.