They battled heartbreak. They overcame tragedy. They lost their two best players during the season but still reached the tournament for the second time in school history.
Then they ran into an unlikely scoring machine named Roburt Sallie.
Averaging just 4.5 points this season, Sallie hit 10 three-pointers and scored 35 as the second-seeded Tigers came from behind to beat the 15th-seeded Matadors, 81-70, yesterday in Kansas City, Mo., and dodge what would have been one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
"Coach said keep shooting," said Sallie, whose previous career high was 13. "None of my teammates would ever expect me to score 35 points. I never made 10 three-pointers before."
Neither had anyone else in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Sallie's long-range onslaught erased the first-round record and enabled Memphis (32-3) to avoid the stigma of being just the fifth No. 2 seed to lose in the opening round since the tournament went to a 64-team format in 1985.
The Matadors, quite logically, had trained their defense on Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier and all the other accomplished shooters who carried the Tigers into the tournament on a 25-game winning streak, the best in the nation.
But then Sallie jumped off the bench and buried them.
"They kept leaving me open. I got a lot of open looks today, and I just hit the shots," he said.
He hit them like no other Memphis player has in the NCAA tournament. His 35 points broke the school record for tournament scoring and were the most by a Tigers player this season.
The Matadors (17-14) seized a six-point lead with a little more than 10 minutes to play, bringing a roar from a capacity crowd that quickly became enchanted with the 19-point underdogs.
"Obviously, we didn't anticipate what Sallie was going to do today," Northridge coach Bobby Braswell said.
Sallie kept the Matadors at bay during a lackluster first half that earned last season's national runners-up a halftime tongue-lashing.
"I called it arrogance at halftime," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "My job is to keep their swagger, but it moved into arrogance."
The Matadors never seemed intimidated and led most of the second half.
"We were never scared," Anderson said. "Scared is never in our minds. That's never a problem for us. They came out and made some shots, and that's what they had to do."
Purdue 61, Northern Iowa 56:: E'Twaun Moore scored 17 points, and fifth seed Purdue held off a late charge by Northern Iowa for a victory in Portland, Ore. JaJuan Johnson added 14 points for the Boilermakers (26-9), who led by 14 in the West Regional at the Rose Garden Arena before the 12th-seeded Panthers made it interesting down the stretch. Kwadzo Ahelegbe had 11 points for Northern Iowa (23-11), which closed to 56-54 on Kerwin Dunham's three-pointer with 17.4 seconds left. Chris Kramer made a pair of free throws before Ahelegbe missed a layup on the rim with 7.7 seconds left for Northern Iowa, and Lewis Jackson made one of two free throws at the other end for Purdue. Ali Farokhmanesh, the Panthers' hero in the Missouri Valley tournament title game, made a pull-up jumper with three seconds left for Northern Iowa before Moore made a pair of foul shots at the other end to seal the victory. "I think we kind of looked up and realized we needed to have a sense of urgency," Purdue forward Lewis Jackson said. "We knew anything could happen." The Boilermakers will play Washington in the second round.
Connecticut 103, Chattanooga 47:: In Philadelphia, Stanley Robinson scored 24 points, and A.J. Price and Hasheem Thabeet each added 20 to lead the top-seeded Huskies to a rout over the No. 16 Mocs for their first postseason win in three years. UConn coach Jim Calhoun missed the game because he wasn't feeling well and was hospitalized for tests. Associate head coach George Blaney coached the Huskies (28-4) in Calhoun's absence. UConn will meet Texas A&M; in tomorrow's second-round game. The Southern Conference champion Mocs (18-17) were pumped for their shot at becoming the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in the tournament. They had a nice start but were simply overmatched by one of the best teams in basketball. The 56-point difference was the third-largest margin of victory in the NCAA tournament. The scary part? The Huskies believe it could have been worse. "We would've been more fired up if Coach was here," Price said. "Chattanooga got off easy without Coach here."
Texas A&M; 79, Brigham Young 66: : In Philadelphia, Bryan Davis scored 21 points, Donald Sloan had 14 and the ninth-seeded Aggies handed the No. 8 Cougars their seventh straight opening-round loss in a rematch from last year. Both teams drew the same seeds last March, when Texas A&M; won, 67-62. Jimmer Fredette scored 18 and Lee Cummard added 17 for BYU (25-8). Looking for its first tournament win since 1993, BYU came out flat. An outstanding perimeter-shooting team during the season, the Cougars couldn't make a shot early. Meanwhile, the Aggies (24-9) couldn't miss. Texas A&M; made its first 10 shots and built a 22-7 lead less than eight minutes in. Davis had eight of those 22 on three mid-range jumpers and a reverse layup.
Washington 71, Mississippi State 58: : Quincy Pondexter scored a season-high 23 points, and the fourth-seeded Huskies took advantage of early foul trouble by Jarvis Varnado to race past the 13th-seeded Bulldogs in Portland, Ore. Jon Brockman had 14 rebounds and 10 points for Connecticut (26-8). Barry Stewart and Phil Turner had 11 points each for Mississippi State (23-13). Varnado, the nation's leader in blocked shots and the Bulldogs' leading scorer, finished with five, to go along with seven points, three rebounds - and four fouls - in 23 minutes.