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VOL. 129 | NO. 43 | Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Tigers Revel in Season Sweep of Louisville

By Don Wade

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Any in-the-moment analytical evaluation of the Tigers’ chances after Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell slammed home a dunk for an eight-point lead with 4:46 left in the game would have been dire.

Memphis’ Geron Johnson was a driving force in the Tigers’ late comeback win over Louisville Saturday at FedExForum. It was the second win over the Cardinals this season. 

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Harrell had 25 points. He would also finish with 12 rebounds, three steals and a block. He had been dominating. The Cardinals, who came in ranked seventh in the country, owned their largest lead of the day, 65-57, after trailing by six at halftime.

So FedExForum grew quiet, except for the low, uneasy groaning that rolled through the arena as every Tiger fan made his or her own calculation.

Down eight to the hated rival – and the defending national champions, no less – with Hall-of-Fame coach Rick Pitino, wearing his version of a beard, stalking the sidelines … yeah, give the Tigers about a 1-in-10 chance to pull a victory out of this situation.

But, as the saying goes, this is why you play the game. The whole game. Memphis held Louisville without a field goal over the last 4:46 en route to a 72-66 win Saturday, March 1.

For the local college basketball team, March roared in like a Tiger.

“We stayed together,” said guard Geron Johnson. “Nobody on our team is selfish. … I wanted to be the one just because I didn’t want to see us go down.”

The Tigers had clawed back to within two points when Johnson stole the ball from guard Russ Smith – Louisville’s lead man – and raced in for the game-tying basket.

Then it was guard Chris Crawford, the Tiger you most want taking a 3-point shot, draining a straight-on three for a 68-65 lead with 1:40 left, the roof of FedExForum practically elevating from the collective scream of joy.

“We played with unbelievable passion,” Crawford said.

Quite the turnaround from the Tigers’ dreadful loss in a mostly empty arena at Houston two days earlier.

“We were in desperation mode,” Johnson said.

“You try not to listen to all the negativity and the noise, but it’s hard,” said guard Michael Dixon, who scored 16 of his team-high 18 points in the second half.

The Tigers are 22-7, 11-5 in the American Athletic Conference with a game Thursday, March 6, at Cincinnati and the regular-season finale at home on Saturday, March 8, vs. SMU.

The Tigers owe both of them, having lost at home to the Bearcats and at SMU. But their business with Louisville, now 24-5 and 13-3, may not be over yet.

That sentiment, in fact, was brought up more than once on the other side.

“Hopefully, we can get them back in the conference tournament,” Pitino said.

“We kind of gave that game away,” forward Luke Hancock said in the hear-a-pin-drop Louisville locker room. “We’ll play them again, probably.”

Historians will note that way back in 1987, in the Metro Conference days, and in Larry Finch’s first season as head coach, the Tigers beat Louisville three times – the last victory coming at Freedom Hall in the conference tournament championship game, 75-72, and denying the Cardinals an NCAA bid; Memphis didn’t go because it was on probation.

In 2014, there is no doubt both teams are going to the NCAA Tournament. And when the AAC Tourney tips off of at FedExForum next week, they could meet again – either in the semifinals or finals depending on the finish to the regular season and seeding.

Memphis coach Josh Pastner, jubilant to say the least in his postgame press conference, called out his sports information director, Lamar Chance, in a good way and credited him for noting that this was the Tigers’ first series sweep of Louisville since the 1996-1997 season.

“A good Saturday for everybody,” Pastner said with a grin.

Well, not for everybody, and not even for the guy with 25 points and 12 rebounds.

“We took a tough loss,” Harrell said in little more than a whisper. “Memphis played a good game, but we beat ourselves.”

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