Experience, home court, an early lead - they all didn't matter as Memphis stormed back to defeat UTEP, 67-66, to win the Conference USA tournament championship, and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Right out of the gates, it looked as though UTEP might have had plans on repeating their 74-47 regular season obliteration of Memphis, as the host Miners stormed out to a 9-0 start. But the Tigers fought back with a trio of three-pointers, and one old-fashioned three-point play to pull within one at 13-12.
The game remained competitive for much of the first half, with Memphis never able to take the lead, but tying the game at 23. But a string of Tiger turnovers helped UTEP put on a 13-2 run, capped off by a Christian Polk three-pointer from the parking lot. The Miners took a 36-27 lead into the half.
Polk wasn't done from that range, either. When Memphis cut the lead to six with under eight minutes to go, Polk hit treys on three straight Miner possessions to temporarily repel the Tiger rally. But Memphis kept fighting, used a 9-0 run to get within three points with four minutes to play, and eventually tied it up at 65 on a deep Chris Crawford three with 1:53 remaining.
Some missed free throws for each team gave Memphis the ball, trailing 66-65, with 11.9 seconds left on the clock. Joe Jackson drove on Julyan Stone, and was fouled hard going up for a lay-up. He converted both attempts to give the Tigers their first lead of the game. UTEP opted to hurry down court without calling a timeout, but the ball ended up getting knocked out of bounds by Memphis with 2.5 seconds to go. Only then did Tim Floyd choose to call for time. On the inbounds pass from under the basket, Polk missed a well-contested potential game-winning jumper, punching Memphis' dance card.
If they had received a good game from Randy Culpepper, the Miners might have been able to put the Tigers away early, but following a dominant 26-point performance in the semifinal, the senior spark plug came up with just seven points on 3-for-13 shooting. Polk's lights-out, 11-of-13 shooting performance actually made him the only Miner in double figure points, with 27.
For the second straight game, Jackson led Memphis in scoring off the bench, pouring in 17, to go with 7 assists. Tarik Black added a double-double with 11 points and 10 boards, and Crawford added 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting from long range.
UTEP is left wondering what could have been after suffering a stunning defeat in the C-USA championship game for the second straight year. Last year, it was the upstart Houston Cougars pulling off the upset of the then-top 25 ranked Miners, this year it was Memphis' startling comeback. Both UTEP, and regular season champ UAB will be keeping their fingers crossed for an NCAA at-large berth on Selection Sunday, but both look like they will end up on the outside looking in. Anybody who watched Saturday's championship game saw two great, tournament-caliber teams, but the resume just doesn't quite look strong enough for UTEP. There isn't one big win to hang the hat on, and some bad home losses to Pacific and Central Florida.
Short of that, let's start cheering for an NIT championship showdown between the Miners and Blazers, and a big run through the Big Dance for a young, but scary-talented Memphis team.