BY Roger Rubin
NY DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
GLENDALE, Ariz. - They leaned over and grabbed the bottoms of their shorts. Their chests heaved for air. The whistle that stopped the action was a welcome sound. Memphis hadn't looked this way all season.
The second-seeded Tigers found themselves in the ninth circle of Missouri's version of the "40 Minutes of Hell" attack that was pioneered by Arkansas and just couldn't tolerate it. Sure, Memphis had better talent, more future NBA draft picks and far greater hype. But Missouri had the better team.
Third-seeded Mizzou pressed, sprinted and fast-breaked its way to a 102-91 victory in Thursday night's late West Regional semifinal, a battle of two teams called the Tigers.
Missouri (31-6) will try for its first trip to the Final Four Saturday afternoon against Connecticut (30-4). The Tigers last played in a regional final in 2002, losing to Big 12 rival Oklahoma.
Memphis (33-4), last year's national runnerup, had its 27-game winning streak snapped and failed in its bid to reach a fourth straight Elite Eight.
"The tournament is about surviving and advancing," said Mizzou coach Mike Anderson, who learned under Nolan Richardson at Arkansas. "That's what our team is about: we survive and advance."
J.T. Tiller had 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting to lead five Missouri players in double figures. DeMarre Carroll tallied 17 points and six assists, Leo Lyons had 15 points and 12 rebounds, Zaire Taylor 14 points and Matt Lawrence 13 points. For Memphis, freshman Tyreke Evans scored a season-high 33 points, Robert Dozier 18 points and Antonio Anderson 19.
Evans, the superlative guard from Philadelphia who was the No. 1 high school recruit a year ago, is expected to decide soon whether to declare for the upcoming NBA draft.
The past two weeks, Memphis endured claims that it was overrated because it came out of mid-major Conference USA. The gaudy defensive statistics about Memphis might have been inflated because of lesser competition. Mizzou shot 53% from the floor and Memphis committed 26 fouls, resulting in 45 Missouri free throws.
Though it is only Anderson's third year with Missouri after a successful run as the head coach at Alabama-Birmingham, this team finally seemed to master the system at the end of the season. Seeded third in the Big 12 tournament, the Tigers rampaged through the tourney to become the No. 3 seed in the regional.
Memphis had to work hard to hold a 28-26 lead on a Roburt Sallie 3-pointer 7:54 before halftime. That's when Missouri's frantic pace began to take hold. Over the next five minutes, Mizzou outscored Memphis 17-5 to go up 43-33.
During the stretch, Memphis committed four of its six first-half turnovers - three resulting in Missouri baskets. In the run, Tiller had eight points and Lawrence six.
Mizzou was still ahead 46-36 just before the end of the half before Marcus Denmon hit a 50-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer. It deflated Memphis. And less than five minutes into the second half, Missouri had worked to its biggest lead, 64-40. A late Memphis charge got it within 96-90 but no closer.
"Marcus' shot sent us into the locker room with energy and brought us out of it with energy," Tiller said.