It wasn’t exactly basketball. It was more like mayhem. The Memphis Tigers could have been arrested for assault.
Officials wore out their whistles. They called 35 fouls on the highly motivated home team and I, being a long-retired referee, counted 17 more I would have called. Isn’t video replay wonderful!
We learned something about the Volunteers. They are physically and mentally tougher than last year. They lost part of their composure at FedEx Arena but reset and met the challenge under withering circumstances. The crowd was into it.
This was the Saturday of the Final Four for Memphis, the one great opportunity of the season. The Tigers were overloaded with ambition.
For some, this was a continuation of the inferiority complex that has plagued the school for generations. Tennessee fans call it Tiger High. Memphis fans think the pompous Volunteers are unfairly blessed. The root of this evil is football. For generations, Tennessee looked down its nose and wouldn’t bother playing.
Memphis, in recent years, has been better in both sports without gaining deserved recognition. There was the great basketball success of coach John Calipari. The prize was taken away because of NCAA violations. Football ascended beyond expectations. The coach got a better job.
Part of the problem is conference affiliation. Beating South Florida and East Carolina just doesn’t sound the same as knocking down Kentucky or LSU.
The Tennessee-Memphis game was contentious, with a lot of knockdowns. Rebounding was one notch under open warfare. Anywhere else on the floor, the Tigers’ plan was to draw contact, fall over and yell “Charging.”
The game did not end well. Friction had been obvious but it finally festered during a late timeout. Jordan Bone took issue with something Alex Lomax said, and what had been only trash talk boiled over.
A whole crowd of Volunteers came down the sideline to see if Bone needed any help.
Officials assessed three technical fouls (two against Memphis). Bone hit two free throws.
Memphis coach Penny Hardaway put the blame on the Volunteers. He said he had known Lomax since middle school and he wasn’t a trash talker.
“Alex is not going to talk trash, so obviously Jordan Bone said something to him disrespectfully,” said Hardaway.
The coach took serious issue with Tennessee players coming near the Memphis huddle “with their fists balled up, ready to fight.”
Penny wanted the officials to punish the Vols. They didn’t.
When relative calmness was restored and the final horn sounded, Rick Barnes and Penny Hardaway shook hands as if both held ice cubes. It was chilly. No “good game.” No “see you next year.”
Hardaway, new as a big-time coach, is one of the more interesting people in basketball. He grew up in Memphis, raised by his grandmother. She feared he would get injured playing football, so basketball became his game. He played for Treadwell High. Parade magazine named him national prep player of the year.
He was academically ineligible in the beginning at Memphis State. He was robbed at gunpoint outside his cousin’s house. He was shot in a foot. There was talk that he might not be able to play again.
He changed his lifestyle, became an all-American, made the dean’s list with a 3.4 grade-point average and cashed in 15 years in the NBA.
He is a legend in Memphis. He projects as a champion recruiter. He is obviously a motivator. His Tigers will be very ready for the rematch in Knoxville next December.
Barnes said all the right things after the game. He said the Vols have to get better. He said the zone was adequate. He said the Tigers got too many offensive rebounds. He said he has great respect for Memphis.
The Vols said they loved the atmosphere, “everybody against you.”
I’m not sure Tennessee needs this.
Marvin West invites reader reactions via email.