HOUSTON, TX -- The freshman from Chicago who wears No. 23 and soars all over the court just finished getting Memphis into the Final Four when fans began chanting “One more year!”
Then Derrick Rose picked up his South Regional MVP award, clipped a piece of the net and called his mom to share the moment. He kept it brief, though, because he didn’t want his teammates to see him cry.
It might be the only thing they’ve never seen him do.
Driving, dishing and dunking, going above the rim for rebounds and flying around to block shots, Rose led Memphis past Texas 85-67 Sunday for its first trip to the Final Four since 1985.
“I’m just living the dream right now,” said Rose, who finished with 21 points, nine assists and six rebounds. “Everybody back home happy for me and our fans back in Memphis are happy, so we’re just living it up.”
The Tigers tied the NCAA Division I record for wins in a season, with their only loss coming to a team ranked No. 2 at the time. They’ve been first, second or third in the poll all season. And to all the people who keep saying they’d be the first No. 1 seed to lose, leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts can say, “See you in San Antonio.”
“I’m not sure if we’ll get the respect we deserve, but if we don’t, it doesn’t matter,” Douglas-Robert said. “It’s four teams left now.”
Memphis will play UCLA and its freshman phenom, Kevin Love. The Tigers and Bruins have a nice little history, having met in a regional final two years ago and in the 1973 title game.
Memphis has only been back to the Final Four once, with Keith Lee leading the way in 1985. But that trip was vacated according to the NCAA record book because of rules violations. Ditto for the only other time John Calipari coached a team to the Final Four, UMass in 1996.
This March, Memphis has treated the NCAA field like it a continuation of Conference USA play. This 18-point finish was the second-closest final margin.
“We just try to go out there and prove everyone wrong,” said bruising big man Joey Dorsey, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds.
The Tigers were a win away from the final weekend of the NCAA tournament each of the last two years, but couldn’t get over the hump. Then again, Dean Smith never won a title at North Carolina until that other No. 23 came along, Michael Jordan.
Calipari even compared Rose to another icon of greatness, Tiger Woods. Actually, Calipari brought it up last weekend, when he passed along an article about Woods to Rose, telling him, “This is who I believe you can be, physically, skill-wise.”
“He’s got to improve, got to get on the range a little bit and get that stroke right, but he also has the mental capacity and the mental toughness and the intelligence to be unique and special. And it sets him apart,” Calipari said.
“He’s been that way since we got him, so it’s nothing I’ve done with him. He just has a will to win. It may be with a defensive stop. It may be with a rebound that he nicked his head on the rim as he went to get it. It may be outrunning the entire field when he started behind everybody. It may be a steal, a dive, a tip out of nowhere, and then again it may be a drive, baseline and dunk on their team.”
Put it this way: The only time Texas (31-7) slowed Rose in the first half was when he got popped on the gash above his right eye and needed new tape and glue job.
Rose made his first four shots and his fifth was a 3-pointer that went in, then spun out.
He opened the game with a jumper in the paint, a reminder that the Longhorns didn’t have a guard big enough to block his view, much less his shot. He blocked an open-court layup by Texas star D.J. Augustin and threw a long pass to Joey Dorsey for a dunk.
“He’s so evasive,” Longhorns coach Rick Barnes said. “I thought early in the game that we could have picked up a couple charges, but I could tell by looking at our players’ faces when I said that. They were like, `I’m sure that looks like we can.’ But he was just slippery. He just slips around and comes at you so hard, and then he comes around the rim and can just elevate and get over you.”
Barnes also complimented Rose for his tempo and composure.
“He just didn’t seem to get rattled,” Barnes said.
Augustin scored 16 points, but was 4-of-18 and had more turnovers (four) than assists (three). All the turnovers came in the first half, like one when he ran to the baseline, turned to throw a pass and saw no one open, so he just dropped it out of bounds. Memphis’ size, speed and athleticism kept Texas from ever getting into a groove.
“They are just as athletic as anybody else,” said Texas’ A.J. Abrams, who has faced UCLA, Kansas, Tennessee and Michigan State this season. “I think they spread the court a little bit more than those other teams as far as driving the ball, and they use every position.”
Abrams scored only two points in the first half, but finished with a team-high 17. Nobody else scored more than eight. The outside-shooting frontcourt of Connor Atchley and Damion James were 1-of-10 on 3-pointers.
What the Longhorns really needed was Kevin Durant, last year’s national player of the year. Without him, Texas still managed to win the most games in school history and win two more tournament games than they did with him.
If Augustin doesn’t turn pro, the Longhorns could have all five starters back next year.
“You know, we didn’t want our road to end right here,” guard Justin Mason said, “but we’re going to work hard like we did last summer and we’ll be back and get ready for next year.”
If can happen. Just look at Memphis bouncing back after two straight setbacks in the regional final.
Of course, it helps to bring in a guy like Rose.