Former Memphis Central star Danielle Ballard relishes Sweet Sixteen appearance for LSU

LSU point guard Danielle Ballard is a big reason the Lady Tigers are back in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in five years. The former Memphis Central High star scored 16 points on 6-of-9 field goals in LSU’s NCAA tournament opening-round win over Green Bay. (Photo courtesy of Louisiana State University)

Moments after the LSU women’s basketball team had shocked Penn State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Tuesday night, Lady Tiger point guard Danielle Ballard wasted little time updating her Facebook status.

Said Ballard, a former Memphis Central High star: “Winning this game was the best moment in my life. Can’t no one take that feeling away from me. Good WIN tonight!! Nobody believed in us, not even the president (of the United States Barack Obama).”

After LSU’s 71-53 loss to nationally-ranked Georgia in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament, the Lady Tigers essentially were on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble looking in. But after earning an at-large berth to the field of 64 when the brackets were revealed last weekend, all the sixth-seeded Lady Tigers have done was make their presence felt during what undoubtedly has been a memorable freshman campaign for Ballard.

Playing in familiar territory in the Maravich Assembly Center, LSU built an 18-point second-half lead and withstood a furious late rally by No. 11 seed Green Bay in the opening round before hanging on for a 75-71 win behind Ballard’s 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Then against No. 3 seed Penn State in the second round, senior guard Adrienne Webb’s career-best 29-point outburst helped propel the underdog Lady Tigers to an emotional 71-66 win and a spot in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2008.

LSU (22-11) advanced to play No. 2 seed California (30-3) Saturday night at 10:30 p.m. CDT in the Spokane Region in Spokane, Wash. The LSU-Cal winner will play the winner of No. 4 seed Georgia versus top-seeded Stanford Monday night in the Elite Eight with a berth in the Final Four at stake.

According to Ballard, LSU’s win over perennial power Penn State erased the memory of Tennessee’s Bashaara Graves edging her in being dubbed SEC Freshman of the Year. Ballard, in fact, has publicly said in recent weeks that she believes she should have walked away with conference Freshman of the Year honors, given her assortment of accolades that includes being ranked second among SEC freshmen in scoring, rebounding, and field goal percentage. Additionally, the 5-foot-7 Ballard led the league in steals and became LSU’s all-time leader in steals in a regular season with 99.

“Yeah, it just shows I should have been Freshman of the Year, Ballard said earlier this week in telephone interview from Baton Rouge, La. “But going to the NCAA tournament, people are really getting a chance to look at me and have a second guess about me.”

Ballard, the Lady Tigers’ third-leading scorer, admittedly welcomes the challenge of playing on college basketball’s grandest stage. Among the reasons is that her entire high school career was spent starting for a Memphis Central team that was a fixture in the national rankings. Rated as the 25th overall prospect and No. 7-ranked point guard nationally by ESPN HoopGurlz for the class of 2012, Ballard guided the Lady Warriors to the Tennessee Class AAA state championship as a junior.

If LSU and Georgia prevail Saturday in the Sweet Sixteen, Monday’s Elite Eight matchup in the Spokane Region will feature Ballard facing former Bartlett High star Jasmine James (left) of the Lady Bulldogs.

Fortunately for LSU, Ballard has been as good as advertised, given her contributions enabled her to rank among a number of key statistical categories this year for the Lady Tigers, most notably steals (first), rebounds (second), assists (third), and minutes played (third).

“She’s really stepped up this year,” Webb, LSU’s second-leading scorer, said of Ballard. “She didn’t play like a freshman this year. She’s been playing like she’s been playing college basketball for a few years now. She has come in and showed so much of what we haven’t seen in a while from a point guard. She plays on both ends of the floor. She has played a very big role. Without her, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

Now that LSU has reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in five years, Ballard is convinced anything can happen this weekend in the Pacific Northwest.

“Yes, definitely the sky’s the limit for this team,” Ballard said. “We have nothing to lose. We have to lay it all on the line.”

Even if the leader of the free world doesn’t give them a chance.

Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at [email protected]. Follow him @AJ_Journalist.

Why Memphis Needs Josh Pastner

(Photo by Justin Ford)

(Photo by Justin Ford)

If the University of Memphis lets Josh Pastner walk away to USC or UCLA, the Tigers will be making a monumental mistake.

Of course, there is a difference between Memphis letting him walk away and doing everything they can to get him to stay but coming up short in the end.

Gary Parrish and Geoff Calkins discussed the potential of Pastner leaving on the radio this week. Parrish said that he thinks Josh should use his position to try and leverage “as much as he can” out of Memphis.  “As much as he can” would likely mean more money and more control. The money is there and available as the “open checkbook” story made clear before Calipari left, but Pastner still needs to prove a bit more in terms of winning before we make him the highest paid coach in the country. But, there is no question we could offer him as much as USC or UCLA would and feel OK about it.

The power issue is what worries me about the situation. As was made evident this season with the Tennessee scheduling guffaw, athletic director Tom Bowen is the boss and Pastner is the employee, which in terms of title is true. But Pastner should hold all the power in terms of scheduling, budget matters, discipline, etc., and if Tom Bowen doesn’t understand that and act accordingly, then yes, Josh should probably leave town.

If this happens and the Memphis athletic department can’t swallow their pride enough to give Josh what he needs and wants, within reason of course, then shame on them. This is not a time to let pride get in the way of making decisions that are best for the university and its basketball program. This is a time to look at a young coach who has been to three straight NCAA tournaments, who has recruited as well as anybody in the country, who has a top three recruiting class coming in next year, and above all else look at a coach who only has four years of head coaching experience and reward him accordingly so he can continue leading our program to bigger and better places.

Josh Pastner will be a star in the coaching world. Right now when people think of great NCAA basketball coaches, they think Izzo, Pitino, and Krzyzewski. In 15 to 20 years Stevens (Brad), Smart (Shaka), and Pastner will be the names synonymous with great coaching. Unfortunately, there will come a day when Memphis might not be able to provide everything Pastner deserves and a job like Duke or UNC or Kansas will open up and come calling, and in that case his leaving would be understandable, but I do not think this needs to be the year we let him get away.

Josh Pastner is good for Memphis. He is good at what he does, and his young age will only get better. He is a man of high moral value, a man that cares about his players more than winning, and a man that gives the University of Memphis a good name.

If Josh for some reason has his mind made up that he is leaving and there is nothing that the U of M can do to make him stay, then so be it. The Tigers can rebound with a decent or even above average coach for next season. But in the here and now, Josh Pastner is a rising star, and Memphis needs to grab on to him and not let go.

Warner Russell is a regular contributor for MemphiSport and The Wise Guise. Read his non-sports stuff here. Follow him @uncle_warny.

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Grizzlies star Mike Conley having more of a vocal presence as postseason looms

TAKING CONTROL: As the longest-tenured player on the Grizzlies’ roster, point guard Mike Conley (right) has become more of a vocal presence of late, something that has benefited the team mightily since the All-Star break, coach Lionel Hollins said. (Photo by Justin Ford)

When Mike Conley starts talking, his teammates make certain to listen.

Such was the case during the Memphis Grizzlies’ game Friday night at the New Orleans Hornets.

Conley, the Grizzlies’ point guard who, early in his professional career, had developed a reputation as one of the quietest players on the roster, surprisingly called out shooting guard Tony Allen during a pivotal stretch Allen described as a “shooting zone” for the five-year veteran.

“He told me to get my bleep (expletive) back,” Allen said.

When asked how he responded to Conley’s unorthodox command, Allen, displaying a smile, said, “Nothing…I got back. That kind of surprised me coming from Mike Conley. That goes to show he’s growing as a point guard and taking control of the team. I just like the feistiness he’s brought and I just want him to keep bringing it, man.”

Fortunately for the Grizzlies, Conley’s keen desire to refrain from remaining tight-lipped has proven beneficial to a Memphis team many essentially had written off before the All-Star break, given an assortment of midseason transactions that included trading former franchise player Rudy Gay to Toronto.

The 25-year-old Conley has since emerged as the catalyst of a Grizzlies squad that has generated an 18-7 mark, has twice gone from fourth to third place in the Western Conference standings and, in February, matched its season-best eight-game undefeated streak since the organization dealt Gay on January 30. His surge in recent weeks includes a season-high 24 points on 9-of-21 field goals in last week’s 90-89 home win against Oklahoma City.

“I think this is his best season,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said of Conley. “He’s grown in so many ways, as has our team. It’s just a normal maturation process that comes for good players. Every player doesn’t come in and become a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Some just have a nice career. You keep getting better and helping your team win. That’s what the NBA is about.”

The longest-tenured Grizzly, Conley, the team’s third-leading scorer, also has assumed a more assertive approach offensively. Since returning from the All-Star break, the former Ohio State star has managed to score in double figures in all except one outing (season-low five points on 2-of-13 field goals against Dallas Feb. 27) and has witnessed his scoring average increase to 13.9 points per game.

Add to the fact that Conley is second in the NBA behind Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul in steals (2.3 steals per game), and it’s no wonder he’s starting to earn mentions among the elite point guards in the league.

“In my eyes,” he’s a boarder-line All-Star,” Boston Celtics veteran forward Paul Pierce said of Conley following Saturday night’s 110-106 loss to Memphis in FedExForum. “He’s one of the most solid players in the league. He’s matured over the years and he’s shown he could be a leader of a ball club. It’s showing out there on the floor.”

Unlike in recent years, when Conley’s roles were comprised mostly of orchestrating the pick at roll offense and distributing the ball to the post players, the Fayetteville, Ark. native remains adamant his time has finally come to have more of an all-around impact for a Grizzlies team that clinched its third consecutive postseason berth with Utah’s loss at Dallas Sunday night.

“I think with the trades and everything that happened,” my roles changed,” Conley said after registering 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting in 37-plus minutes Saturday against the Celtics. “And I had to be a little bit more aggressive offensively. I have a little more responsibilities, a little more freedom. I had to become more confident and aggressive and so far, it’s working.”

Conley, Memphis’ third-leading scorer, was one of seven Grizzly players to register double figures in Saturday night’s 110-106 win against the Boston Celtics in FedExForum. (Photo by Justin Ford)

As Conley tells it, no one had to inspire him to assume the proverbial “marquee player” intellect.

“I kind of looked around (after the midseason trades) and I said, ‘Who’s going to do it?’ Conley said. “I knew JB (Grizzlies backup point guard Jerryd Bayless) has the talent to do it. I know I can do it, and I think as guards of this team, we have to pick it up in our backcourt and help the big guys out. I’ve been here the longest, so I feel like I’ve invested more to this team than anybody. You know, I speak my mind a lot more than I used to do.”

Allen, more than any other Grizzly, admittedly welcomes Conley’s newfound vocal approach. So much, in fact, that he hopes to see more of it as the postseason looms.

“Mike Conley has proven he’s in the discussion as one of the elite point guards in the league,” Allen said. “When you get through talking about (Chicago Bulls Derrick) Roses, (Brooklyn Nets) Deron Williams, Chris Paul, (Oklahoma City Russell) Westbrook, you’ve got to throw Mike Conley in there. I just like the fact that he has more of a sense of urgency, that he’s more of a vocal leader, more of a distributor and scorer.

“When he came back from the All-Star break, he was more of a dominant player guy. He was more in control, I believe, distributing the ball, getting Zach (Randolph) and Marc (Gasol) involved, g0t me involved. He’s talking on the bench. He’s vocal in the huddle. The quiet Mike that we once knew isn’t quiet anymore.”

Given his stellar all-around play of late coupled with his willingness to sound off, don’t expect Conley to revert back to mute anytime soon.

Andre Johnson covers the Grizzlies for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at [email protected]. Follow him @AJ_Journalist.

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Round of 32 is about respect for America 12

(Photo by Justin Ford)

(Photo by Justin Ford)

When the “Catholic 7” decided to leave the sinking ship that was the Big East, and ironically take the name with them, they left the former Big East schools out in the cold.

With the traditional basketball powers like Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Villanova (all losing in the Round of 64) leaving to form a new Big East while and Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse commit to the ACC, we are left wondering if the former Big East schools will be able to compete with the larger conferences on the basketball court.

This year there are three teams from the America 12 (the front runner for new names for the new conference that will contain the members of the former Big East) in the tournament.

Memphis, Cincinnati, and Temple are carrying the torch for their new conference in this year’s tournament, and so far the three teams are representing the conference well.  They are 2-1 (Cincinnati lost to Creighton in the Round of 64), and when Connecticut gets off of NCAA suspension next year,  the conference formerly known as the Big East should be a formidable basketball conference.

Memphis hung on to beat Saint Mary’s, while Temple won a close game against North Carolina State.  Both of the teams, destined to join the A-12 (or whatever the new name will be), will face steep competition in the Round of 32 from Big Ten schools, with Memphis taking on Michigan State, and Temple facing off with Indiana.

These two games are about more than a Sweet 16 appearance, they are about getting respect for the Tigers and the Owls new conference.

Since the beef of the former Big East is no more, many analysts think that the curtains have closed on the old Big East in terms of basketball relevance.

UConn will be given a level of respect that will rival that of the schools in the larger conferences, but if nobody else in the conference can hold their own against other elite schools in the nation, the conference might only get one team into the big dance.

Memphis and Temple have the chance to help shape the perception of their new conference with wins over two of the top ten teams in the nation, but it will not be easy.

Wins against two of the best teams in the Big Ten will be tough, but if they can pull it off, both programs will draw national attention for a conference in need of a helping hand.

Although the America 12 will not be an automatic qualifying BCS conference, it can become a conference on par with the Atlantic Ten or Mountain West from a basketball perspective.  Both the A-10 and MWC have more teams in the tournament than the Pac-12 (4), ACC (4), and SEC (3).

That is what the “third round” is about for Memphis and Temple.  The Round of 32 is bigger than the pride of the schools, the Sweet 16, and keeping the dreams of a possible National Championship alive.  It is about shaping the perception of their new conference.

Perception is reality in college sports.  If a conference gets labeled as weak, they will not receive as many at-large bids and lose out on millions in revenue dollars.

Wins for Memphis and Temple would go a long way in helping their new conference gain respect in basketball.

On the other hand, losses, especially in blow out fashion, could do the opposite.

CJ Hurt covers college basketball for MemphiSport. Follow him @churtj09 for live tweets from games.

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Game Preview: Memphis Tigers battle Michigan State in Auburn Hills

“Survive and advance” is the theme for March.  The University of Memphis Tigers escaped with a narrow two-point win over the Saint Mary’s Gaels 54-52 in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64.  With the win, the Tigers earned their first tournament and Top 25 victory under head coach Josh Pastner.

The prize for this accomplishment is facing the Michigan State Spartans in Auburn Hills, MI just 80 miles from the MSU campus.  If The Tigers can get on a roll, the Spartans cross-state rival the Michigan Wolverines fans could become temporary Tigers fans.  Michigan plays VCU in the same building prior to Memphis-Michigan State.

The Spartans defeated Valparaiso in 65-54 in their opening round game of the NCAA Tournament.  Derrick Nix had a monster game scoring 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds 9 of which were offensive.

The Tigers will enter the game as a prohibitive underdog. The Tigers played their best basketball this season when they played with a chip on their shoulder.  The last time Memphis played Michigan State in the tournament the Tigers defeated the Spartans on their way to the Final Four.

Chris Crawford long range shots have to return in order for Memphis to advance. Photo by Justine Ford.

Chris Crawford long range shots have to return in order for Memphis to advance. Photo by Justine Ford.

How the Tigers can advance to the Sweet 16:

Exploit the Spartans weakness.

The Tigers are one of the fastest teams in the country.  The guard play of Joe Jackson is the reason why.  The Spartans biggest weakness is their guard play.  If Jackson, Gerron Johnson and Chris Crawford are able to push the tempo and force turnovers it will be a long day for the Spartans.

Play with no fear.

All season the Tigers have been checking items off of their list that they have never accomplished.  The latest checked item on their list was never having won a NCAA or Top 25 game under Pastner.  In order for the Tigers to advance to the Sweet 16, they will have to play forty minutes of basketball like they play in their first twenty minutes in the Saint Mary’s game.

Team play.

There is no time like the present to have just average games.  If Chris Crawford, Johnson and Adonis Thomas can all have just their average game at the same time, the Tigers would win most games in blowout fashion.  It has been very rare this season when every member of the team has clicked at the same time.  The Tigers are capable of defeating the Spartans, but can they execute their game plan with perfection?

Make free throws.

The Tigers have been a good free throw shooting team for most of the season.  However ,they have not been shooting free throws well of late.  The Tigers have a history of not receiving favorable calls in most games and the recent history of not shooting free throws well means the Tigers need to take care of business early.  The team needs to experience a blowout victory to eliminated any chances of ending their season prematurely.

ON TV: Memphis vs. Michigan State airs Saturday at 1:45 pm on CBS

Terry Davis covers the Memphis Tigers for MemphiSport. To reach Terry, email him at [email protected]. Follow him @Terryd515 .

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Photos: Memphians watch their Tigers defeat St. Mary’s in NCAA Tournament

Memphis fans sure know how to plan their day around an afternoon NCAA Tournament game.

Here are some of the best social media pictures of Memphis fans watching Josh Pastner’s get his first ever NCAA Tournament win as head coach of the Tigers:

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Twitter: @cerrito

Peyton and Ashley Manning to attend first Grizzlies home game as owners

ashley and peyton-manning

New Memphis Grizzlies minority owners Peyton and Ashley Manning will be in attendance at the March 29 home game against the Houston Rockets, according to a tweet by The Commercial Appeal’s Kyle Veazey.

This will be the Manning couple’s first game at The Grindhouse as owners. Justin Timberlake caused a frenzy when he made his home debut as a Grizzlies owner over Thanksgiving weekend.

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VIDEO: Marc Gasol says a bad word on TV after Grizzlies beat Thunder

Just days after getting national attention for using his shoe to foul Derrick Favors,  Marc Gasol once again has Grizzlies fans buzzing after his game-winning tip against the Thunder and his postgame comments that followed.

Watch Gasol’s game winner vs. Thunder:

Now, watch Gasol’s infamous postgame comments:

**WARNING: Explicit Language**

 

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Game Preview: Tigers open up NCAA play with St. Mary’s

The respect that the University of Memphis was looking for from the NCAA Selection Committee was received when the Tigers were placed as a sixth seed in the tournament.  However, the Tigers will be at a slight disadvantage in only having only 36 hours to prepare for the 11-seed Saint Mary’s Gaels.

The Tigers will have to do some late night cramming to find out their game plan for the Gaels.  St. Mary’s defeated the Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders 67-54 in the  First Four game in Dayton, OH and will travel to play the Tigers in Auburn Hills, MI at 1:40 Central time on Thursday March 21.  The Gaels are 28-6 and three of their losses have been to Gonzaga.

Joe Jackson looks to get the Tigers their first NCAA tournament win under Coach Josh Pastner.  Photo by Justin Ford

Joe Jackson looks to get the Tigers their first NCAA tournament win under Coach Josh Pastner. Photo by Justin Ford

Memphis’ keys to a their first NCAA Tournament victory with Josh Pastner:

Joe Jackson being the leader.

Jackson has had his best season as a Tiger.  He has made other players on the team better.  Jackson does not look to be the top scorer every game.  Since the tournament in the Bahamas, Jackson has been the motor that has driven the Tigers.  Jackson has not complained when he was not in the game and gives the team what it needs at critical times.

Adonis Thomas.

Thomas has the ability to take over a game at any point.  In the game at Tennessee, he came out with a killer instinct from the opening tip.  He needs to have that commitment for the rest of the season in the opening minutes of every game.  Thomas is not dependent on relying on other players to get him the ball in certain spots.  Thomas can be effective as a long to mid-range shooter or as a cutter to the basket.

The big men have to play big.

Tarik Black and Shaq Goodwin have got to play more physical, but yet smarter.  The Tigers will be bigger than most teams the play.  However the Tigers have had a tendency to be out rebounded in most games.  Black and Goodwin can be dominating forces for the Tigers, when they are not in foul trouble. Neither player can afford to continue to commit silly avoidable fouls.

Must stop Matthew Dellavdova.

Dellavedova is the heart and soul of the Gaels.  If the Tigers are able to disrupt him, they will be able to get the team out of character.  Dellavedova is one of the best players in the country and he can score from all parts of the floor.  Dellavedova is the leading scorer in the Gaels’ history and is the second leading active assist leader in NCAA with 757.

Control tempo.

When the Tigers play at their pace, they can play with any team in the nation.  The Tigers are very explosive and can score points in quickly.  When the Tigers are clicking with Jackson, Chris Crawford and Gerron Johnson, their pressure defense will cause turnovers and quick layups or killer 3-pointers.

Vegas has St Mary’s favored over the Tigers by 1.

ON TV: Memphis vs. St. Mary’s airs at 1:45 pm on CBS

Terry Davis covers the Memphis Tigers for MemphiSport. To reach Terry, email him at [email protected]. Follow him @Terryd515 .

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Sports Illustrated says Bob Saget and others are ‘cooler’ than Jerry Lawler

Photo courtesy of MemphisWrestlingHistory.com

Photo courtesy of MemphisWrestlingHistory.com

According to Sports Illustrated’s list ranking of all 68 NCAA Tournament schools in order  by “coolest” alumnus (or alumna), Memphis’ own Jerry “The King” Lawler is not as cool as 64 other celebrities including Bob Saget, DJ Qualls, Ken Jeong, Adam Vinatieri, Kirstie Alley, George Wendt, John Lutz, Penny Marshall, Zach Galifinakis, Benson, Steve Guttenberg and fellow WWE superstar The Big Show.

How can this be? Is this list just another example of the national media not respecting the Memphis Tigers? Should Lawler challenge the staff of Sports Illustrated to a no disqualification match at WrestleMania?

View SI’s “68 NCAA Tournament Schools Ranked By Coolest Person Who Went There” list here.

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