COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Tigers journey to a national championship ends in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Memphis (26-9) fell to Florida Atlantic, 66-65. Despite the loss, there were plenty of Tiger fans in Columbus to cheer on Memphis.
Before the game, they shared their thoughts on this year's season. There were plenty of reasons to be extremely happy in Columbus for this NCAA tournament run. Memphis already celebrated an AAC Championship and over a rival, no less — then #1 Houston. Any wins in this tournament would just be the cherry on top.
Penny Hardaway, in his fifth year as head coach of Memphis and as a collegiate head coach, still has room to grow. The loss stings, but one can refuse to acknowledge the steps forward the team has taken.
"We’re used to being competitive in basketball, and Coach Penny’s done a great job bringing us back to this level," said Laird Veatch, Athletic Director for the University of Memphis. "It’s where we expect to be, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s great for the city — not just the fans — but it’s great for the city of Memphis."
Before Saturday's game, Memphis fans clamored into local bar Moran's to celebrate the year and prepare for the first game of the tournament. They came from near and far.
Amy McLain made the drive with her husband. She's been cheering on the Tigers since their magical run to the NCAA Championship game in 1983, which the university celebrated throughout the season.
"We drove in this morning from Indianapolis — it was just a three hour drive," she said. "I would have drove a lot further, but [it] just makes it all the sweeter. I’ve watched every single game I could get my hands on. I’ve been so proud."
McLain had one of the shorter drives as far as Memphis fans go. Most drove or flew from the Bluff City or other nearby cities.
Chris Jeans flew in from Nashville. He had been keeping up with the Tigers throughout the year but took a second to reminiscence on his fandom — when things weren't so great.
"[This year] has been great. Having to go through the down years and seeing where we are now, I mean, it's just exciting to see the team get to this point," Jeans said.
Memphis is a rowdy city. It's fans can be a passionate bunch and that can sometimes get misconstrued by outsiders.
Piling in to Moran's, blue and white dominated the bar scene. Speckles of Michigan State green or Purdue gold dotted the room.
Memphis fans made it clear they were going to be heard.
"One, we’re gonna whoop that trick. We’re gonna be loud and we’re gonna make sure everybody knows that we’re here," Anjuli Gustafson said, a 2004 Memphis graduate.
Asked what she would say to Penny Hardaway if she got him one-on-one, Gustafson took a long moment to pause, and after a moment, epitomized Memphis' relationship to Hardaway.
"Love and loyalty because we as fans love him, and we’re loyal to him; this city, our team and we know that they in return love us," Gustafson said.
Ryan and Chris Jeans, next to Gustafson, added on.
"I’d say I appreciate [the season] — just an opportunity to see a team do well," Chris said.
"I’d just tell him that I’ve enjoyed the entire ride. Like I said, last year was great. This year we’ve built on top of that and it’s been even better," said Ryan.
Veatch was equally as appreciative. After all, he was the AD that brought home Memphis' most famous son to coach the team.
In Hardaway's time, Memphis has gone to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, won a AAC Tournament Championship, been to the NIT, had five seasons of 20-plus wins and beat a #1 overall team for the first time in Memphis' history.
For sure, fans will be disappointed with 2023's end result and should be. Still pre-game Veatch understood that perhaps this year's team was bigger than just basketball.
"I’d just say thanks," Veatch said. "[Hardaway] has a great group of guys that really care about each other. You’ll see tonight. They’re really competitive. Really refuse to lose and that sort of describes the city."
McLain thought back to when she first was introduced to who Penny Hardaway was, a college freshman, who was given the keys to the city and expected to drive.
He took them to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments then too — one ending in the Elite Eight. He hasn't quite gotten the program back there, but he's knocking on the door.
McLain is appreciative of that, but she's more appreciative of the impact Hardaway is having on his city — for better or for worse.
"I remember you when you were 18, and you were still this nice stand up guy, and I’m so proud of what you’re doing for this city and for these kids you’re working with," McLain said.
Win or lose, near or far, the Tigers are loved wherever they go, and Hardaway has brought back an electricity to Tigers basketball as well as Memphis overall.
Sports Reporter/Multi-Skilled Journalist