Game 003:Memphis 81, St. Mary's 66 Thursday, November 18, 2004 Madison Square Garden - New York, NY
The first thing visitors to Madison Square Garden last night noticed was the huge banner stretched across Two Penn Plaza. The large grey swath was a mockup of a newspaper front page featuring the starring attractions of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic: a Memphis player, a Mississippi State player, a Syracuse player... and a California player.
Maybe the event organizers thought that they could engineer a TV-friendly outcome for the CvC despite the expansion of the tournament to include relative palookas, but the folks at the World's Most Famous Arena rolled out the red carpet for St. Mary'sin grand style. They did as much as they could to reverse an egregious slight to a team that had earned a spot in the semis by knocking off the Golden Bears, in Berkeley.
They called in a high school band, outfitted them in matching t-shirts, and positioned them near the Gaels' bench. A booming announcement came over the P.A. system during warmups: "The Garden would like to extend a special welcome to St. Mary's College!" They even let them wear their white uniforms. Welcome to New York City. Make yourself at home!
Early on in the early semifinal game against Memphis, the spotlight was fixed squarely on the Gaels' 6-10 junior Daniel Kickert. He scored the team's first seven points, and had 12 before the first TV timeout. I vaguely remember him from a late-night game against Santa Clara last season, when he was unconsciously raining down threes. Kickert's game is about hanging around the rim and sneaking out to the perimeter when his defender gets distracted - he's got the soft hands to knock down triples just like a-ringin' a bell. It's just all so... European.
The game's key moment happened silently. Kickert was removed at the 13-minute mark, despite not having been assessed a foul. During the three minutes he sat on the bench, Memphis went on a 10-3 run, took the lead, and never looked back. The only explanation I can come up with is that it was time for a coach-chat about Kickert's defense, as a number of the Tigers' early interior buckets came at the expense of the soft, squishy presence of a certain Aussie dude.
When he returned, all the magic dust had blown away. Kickert spent most of the rest of the first half trying to find his way back into the offensive rhythm. For the last three-fourths of the game, the Gaels kept running into forcefields - they never did get back within eight points of Memphis, and they couldn't crack the 38% shooting barrier. The lead stayed in the 8- to 12-point range until the last couple of minutes, when the Tigers edged away to generate a final score more likely to impress the poll voters.
By far, the standout performance of this game - and the doubleheader - was turned in by Memphis' Rodney Carney. He scored 33 points and put on a high-flying dunk show that made famous teevee personality Dick Vitale literally jump from his chair and gesticulate wildly on several occasions. Carney is exactly the type of player that makes NBA scouts drool - muscular, athletically gifted, vertical leaping ability, and unquestionable levels of creativity. If Memphis doesn't fall into the trap of acting as a showcase for a future millionaire (or into a Shaq-Kobe squabble between he and power forward Sean Banks) instead of a ballclub on a mission, they'll do some damage in the final year of Conference USA as we know it.
One note, though. Memphis has been a recent staple of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournaments in recent years (appearing in the last three), and will return to the City That Never Sleeps on December 7 for the Jimmy V Classic. Whenever I've seen them at the Garden, they've had cheering sections that could be kindly referred to as "microscopic." I don't know if it has anything to do with how well their fans travel or their ticket allocation or whatever - but it's obvious that despite all their constant appearances and the whole John Calipari thing, they can't pack the Garden like a Duke, a Michigan or a St. John's can. Um, well, at least how the Johnnies used to pack them in.
So if you live in New York City, and you happen to see a streak (or is it an ambush) of lonely Memphis Tigers out wandering aimlessly in the streets, please make them feel at home, won't you?