Last night's matchup between #1 Memphis & #2 Tennessee, was for more than just national bragging rights; it was for state bragging rights as well. In a battle of Tennessee's two best college teams, a much anticipated thriller lived up to its hype.
With a perfect 26-0 season and a 47 game home win-streak on the line, Memphis still had much to prove. Even at #1 in the country many still had doubts if Memphis was the real deal. Conference USA is not exactly the most competitive conference, so there were many skeptics to all the hype about Memphis. In the last two years, Memphis has found itself as a #1 & #2 seed in the NCAA tournament, but showed nothing for it. A more experienced Memphis team felt this was their year, and wanted a big win last night over #2 Tennessee to hush the skeptics.
When it was all said and done, Memphis was out-hustled, out-muscled, and out-played. Tennessee fought hard for a 66-62 victory. Both teams came out of the locker room shooting lights out, but after the first commercial break, the game's style shifted and turned into a defensive grudge match; something not expected from the two, high-powered offenses. Memphis, a team known for making plays when it needed to this season, answered every opportunity to take back the lead in the final seconds with missed shots. Instead, Tyler Smith of Tennessee rose to the challenge, making two key baskets down the stretch, including what proved to be the game-winner; a difficult short-range jumper in which he appeared to be fouled as well.
Memphis' biggest weakness, its inability to make free throws, was exploited and a huge factor in the game as well. The nation's 4th worst free-throw shooting team (58.8% on the year) shot a miserable 8-17 from the line. Nine crucial points that proved to decide a big game they could have won. However, Memphis' poor performance at the line shouldn't take away from the effort Tennessee brought to Memphis last night. Tennessee deserved to win this one. It was the biggest win in Tennesee's school history, and with it, Tennessee should rise to the #1 ranking in the country for the first time ever.
As for Memphis...the team got the loss many thought it needed to avoid a Patriots championship meltdown. But Memphis still hasn't proven that Conference USA's best is capable of competing with the best in the nation and winning the big game. Free-throw shooting is essential in close games and although Memphis can get away with it against weak, Conference USA teams, they will not be able to against the powers of the NCAA come tournament time. Coach John Calipari is a great coach and he has a great bunch of athletes on his team, but unless Memphis can find a way to make their foul shots (58% - 4th worst in the nation is unacceptable), they shouldn't count on being the #1 team in the country and surviving the NCAA tournament, en route to a national championship.
Image taken from Yahoo! Sports