TULSA, OK - MARCH 18: Joe Jackson #1 of the Memphis Tigers reacts in the final moments of their 77-75 loss to the Arizona Wildcats in the second round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at BOK Center on March 18, 2011 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Memphis certainly came ready to play today, but in the end the athleticism that carried them throughout the season wasn't enough to overcome Pac-10 champion Arizona. The game was a back and forth battle all afternoon. Memphis jumped out to a quick 10-1 lead, and would hold on to that lead until 3:47 left in the first half. Arizona then raced ahead to a 5 point advantage, but the Tigers were far from done. They answered with a quick 7-0 to regain the lead, but the Wildcats would be ahead 41-38 at the break.
Arizona would hold their lead until about 14 minutes to go, when an Antonio Barton three put Memphis up 41-38. The two teams would continue to swap leads the rest of the game, and after two made free throws the Wildcats found themselves with a 77-74 lead with only 8 seconds to go. An Arizona foul sent Joe Jackson to line with 5 seconds left, and after making the first, and intentionally missing the second, Memphis F Will Witherspoon grabbed the rebound, but his put back was denied by PAC-10 player of the year Derrick Williams, and the Arizona Wildcats escaped with a 77-75 victory.
The loss by Memphis leaves no Conference USA teams alive in either the NCAA tournament, or the NIT tournament. UAB fell to Clemson 70-52 in the "first four" round of the NCAA tournament on Tuesday, and UTEP fell to New Mexico 69-57 in the opening round of the NIT that same day. SMU, who is playing in the College Invitational Tournament, and UCF who is playing the College Basketball Invitational, remain the only two C-USA teams still alive in post season play.
It was a great year in Conference USA. We saw some great competition and excitement all the way down to the final week of the season. C-USA was definitely the strongest it has been since the 2005 expansion, and there was more parity throughout the league than there has been even further back than that. That's really all you can ask for. Unfortunately, it didn't translate to post season success. The conference didn't gain the respect that it deserved, but that will come as our teams continue to improve and continue to beat top quality competition.
Its time to turn the corner in Conference USA. We've got a ton of great coaches throughout the league, and even more great players. We just need to figure out how to translate that into more on court success. If that comes, this conference can elevate itself into the realm of those at the top. It was a tough way to end the season, but hopefully what we saw today is only a preview of what is to come. Go Miners, and Go Conference USA.