Commentary

Unlikely hero saves the day for Memphis

Sallie explodes for 35 as Tigers avoid first-round upset vs. Cal State Northridge

Originally Published: March 19, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Roburt Sallie has changed the way Memphis can be defended for as long as the Tigers remain in the NCAA tournament.

If he stays this hot and continues to make shots, especially 3s, the Tigers won't be as predictable as they had been.

[+] EnlargeRoburt Sallie
Jim Brown/US PresswireRoburt Sallie scored 35 points, hitting 10 of 15 3s, as Memphis avoided a shocking upset against Cal State Northridge.

"This changes the scouting a bit because it opens up driving for us," Memphis senior guard Antonio Anderson said of himself and freshman point guard Tyreke Evans after the No. 2 seed Tigers rode a 35-point performance from Sallie to beat No. 15 seed Cal State Northridge 81-70 in the first round of the West Regional. "He had been shooting well and told us he was ready to do this."

If that's the case, then Sallie has a high level of confidence, because the numbers on the score sheet don't back up his claim one bit.

Projecting that Sallie would even come close to making 10 of his team's 11 3s and would score 35 points -- a single-game Memphis record that surpassed Larry Kenon's mark of 34 in 1973 -- was unfathomable.

Sallie, a 23-year-old sophomore who averaged 4.5 points per game this season, had traversed the junior college and recruiting circuit before signing once at Washington, and twice at Nebraska -- the second time this past spring made him ineligible to compete for the Huskers (Big 12 rules prohibit signing a player twice) -- before arriving at Memphis this past summer.

He didn't score in the Tigers' previous game against Tulsa. He was held scoreless nine times this season. His maximum scoring output had been 13 -- which he accomplished twice. He was not a favorite of Memphis coach John Calipari early in the season because he wasn't picking up the team's dribble-drive motion offense.

"Our motto is, 'Every player, every possession,'" Calipari said. "He wasn't used to that. He was more like a rec league [player], 'I'll play when I feel like it. I'll get it going at some point.' It took him time to figure out. He's been great the last three weeks."

Calipari said he agreed to pick up Sallie while the team was on a trip to China in May because Anderson and fellow senior Robert Dozier, who played with Sallie at Laurinburg (N.C.) Prep in 2004-05, vouched for his ability. Sallie was looking for yet another chance, even though he said he was close to quitting the sport. That spring, Nebraska coach Doc Sadler protested the Big 12's decision not to allow Sallie to play for the Huskers. At the time, Sadler told ESPN.com that Sallie was going to be a scorer for some team. Kentucky and Cincinnati both were in with Sallie, but Memphis -- with Anderson and Dozier -- had a player connection the other two didn't. The Tigers were looking for another guard because Doneal Mack had transferred to New Orleans. Mack changed his mind a short time later and returned to the Tigers, even after Sallie committed. Calipari said he told the players that if Sallie couldn't play defense, he didn't want him. They assured him he could do both -- defend and shoot.

But he apparently was slow to learn the nuances of the offense.

"I wasn't picking it up, but I've always been a good shooter," Sallie said.

In practice last week, Calipari told Sallie to make 10 3s in a row. He made 14. The Matadors, who built up a seven-point lead early in the first half, played zone. It worked against everyone -- everyone except Sallie, that is. Sallie shot 10-of-15 from 3 as the rest of the Tigers were 1-of-13.

Cal State Northridge's Mark Hill said the Matadors knew Sallie could shoot, but "not shoot like this."

"We wanted to force them to take jump shots and make contested jump shots, and for the most part we did that," Matadors coach Bobby Braswell said. "Sallie was phenomenal. The shots he hit were contested."

Mack, who was 0-for-7 from the field, started against the Matadors. But Calipari said he's not against switching Sallie into the starting lineup. He said the tournament is about going with whoever is performing, not with who has done well in the past.

Someone asked Sallie whether he could explain the "u" in his first name. He said his mother chose the unusual spelling of "Roburt," instead of "Robert," to make him unique. For one game, he was certainly special for the Tigers. He was the one player who could hit 3-point shots. Evans (15 points on 6-of-11 shooting) and Anderson (13 points on 6-of-11 shooting) were a combined 1-of-6 on 3s.

"[Sallie] has been out of basketball for two years," Anderson said. "It just takes time."

And after this game, no one will argue whether his shooting has finally arrived.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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