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View from the 'ville
Friday, March 20, 2009

By Al Myatt

Memphis Sallies into NCAA second round

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Pop art guru Andy Warhol once declared that everyone has 15 minutes of fame. For Roburt Sallie, who emerged from the obscurity of the Memphis bench, the ride will last a little longer.

Sallie stepped up to save the day for the Tigers in their first round NCAA Tournament date in Kansas City.

Sallie had one of his typical games against East Carolina back on January 28 as the Tigers topped the Pirates 85-64. He was one-for-three from the field, dropping a shot from behind the arc for three points in his 15 minutes of play.

There wasn't much fame to be found in those 15 minutes in Greenville, but Sallie was granted 36 minutes on Thursday by coach John Calipari, who has been around long enough to know a shooter with a hot hand when he sees one.

The Memphis sophomore was averaging just 4.5 points going into the NCAA Tournament as the Tigers matched up with Cal State Northridge. Memphis took a 25-game winning streak into the first round matchup.

The Matadors were sending ripples through the college basketball world as they forged a six-point lead with just over 10 minutes to go. The 19-point underdogs had the crowd sensing the fifth first round upset in tournament history by a No. 15 seed.

But ultimately Northridge couldn't slow Sallie in the breakout game of his career and Memphis made a decisive closing run.

Sallie hit 10 three-pointers and finished with 35 points as he ascended from reserve role player to superstar faster than a Waffle House cook can serve up a plate of grits in an 81-70 Memphis victory.

Sallie, who hails from Sacramento but has some North Carolina stops on his hoops resume, got the green light from Calipari as he exceeded his previous career high by 22 points. Sallie made his first five shots from beyond the arc and his total of 10 from long distance broke the NCAA Tournament first round record of nine set by Michigan's Garde Thompson in 1987.

"Coach said keep shooting," Sallie said. "None of my teammates would ever expect me to score 35 points. I never made 10 three-pointers before."

Sallie connected for a three in a decisive 9-0 Memphis run. He had scored 11 straight points for Memphis during a first half riff.

The Matadors had geared their defense to deal with Memphis' proven scorers. Sallie wasn't even on their radar.

"Obviously, we didn't anticipate what Sallie was going to do today," said Northridge coach Bobby Braswell. "Our point was to pressure (Robert) Dozier inside and force other guys to hit shots.

"I have no problem with it, because my focus in practice was to force them to take contested shots. And I believe most of (Sallie's) shots were contested. He stepped up and made big plays. I ran into Calipari and he said that was his best game he's ever played. He made some big shots and you have to give them credit for that."

Memphis held a scant 34-31 lead at the half and Calipari wasn't happy.

"I called it arrogance at halftime," said Memphis coach. "My job is to keep their swagger, but it moved into arrogance."

An attitude adjustment was needed as Memphis found major point production from an unanticipated source.

"Tyreke Evans and Robert Dozier weren't as good as they usually are," Calipari said. "But at this point, we're just trying to march on."

The Tigers move on to meet Maryland on Saturday.

There were pockets in North Carolina that were probably whooping it up as Sallie heated up on Thursday. He was an integral part of a 40-0 team at Laurinburg Institute in 2004-05, tallying 22 points in a 95-83 win over Hargrave Military for the national prep title.

Sallie averaged 13.4 points for The Patterson School in Lenoir, NC, before playing a season on the junior college level at City College of San Francisco.

Cal State Northridge is located just north of Hollywood but Sallie stole the show with an awesome — albeit unscripted — performance on Thursday to keep the Conference USA champions from taking a precipitous fall.

Memphis' unexpected route into the second round came the day after Calipari had been named college basketball coach of the year by Sports Illustrated. Calipari won the Naismith Award for the second time last season.

The Tigers' rampage through C-USA wasn't deemed worthy of a No. 1 seeding although some bracketologists had them ahead of Connecticut after the Huskies went down in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals to Syracuse in a six-overtime epic.

Ultimately, Memphis' record against the top 50 teams in the ratings power index wasn't as good as UConn's. But 32-3 and a No. 2 rating in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll isn't too shabby. The Tigers came within a whisker of taking the national title from Kansas last season and have regrouped nicely in the aftermath of the departure of freshman point guard Derrick Rose to the NBA.

Despite those who question Memphis' strength of schedule, the Tigers have been consistent enough to avoid the pitfalls of an occasional off night in their continuing domination of C-USA.

Calipari is the first coach in NCAA Division I history to have four-straight 30-win seasons, and is also the winningest head coach in a four-year span in NCAA history with 136 victories from 2006 to the present.

The Tigers have won 26 straight, the third-straight year Memphis has had a win streak of 25 or more games (25 in 2006-07 and 2008-09, 26 in 2007-08). The Tigers are the only program in NCAA Division I history to have three straight years with at least a 25-game win streak.

Memphis had a third straight perfect season in C-USA, running its overall league winning streak to 61 games (regular season and tournament), the second-longest in NCAA Division I history. The program's 49-game C-USA regular season winning streak is also the second-longest in the NCAA record book.

Second place isn't Memphis' goal in the NCAA Tournament but the Tigers were fortunate to get to the second round on Thursday.

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03/20/2009 02:25:33 PM


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