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Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes reacts to a call during the first half of Saturday's home game against Memphis. / AP photo by Wade Payne

KNOXVILLE — Get used to this, Tennessee. Get used to Memphis once more being Memphis, the most tradition-rich basketball program in the Volunteer State, even if its biggest moments often have come with asterisks, as in the NCAA later found some reason to erase them.

But that doesn't erase the fact that the Tigers have reached three Final Fours since 1973 and played for two national championships, though they lost both of those contests.

And what Memphis did Saturday afternoon in Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena hints that it just might have a team capable of reaching college hoops' final weekend for a fourth time in school history, however ugly the Tigers' 51-47 victory was by classic standards.

Still, as winning coach and Memphis basketball legend Penny Hardaway noted more than once after his 13th-ranked team's ninth victory in 10 games: "It's about being down two stars and winning on the road."

Just to be clear, those two stars aren't your garden variety players. Freshman center James Wiseman, all 7-foot-1 and 240 pounds of him, is currently sitting out a 12-game suspension mandated by — drum roll, please — the NCAA for wrongs allegedly committed by Hardaway to move the Wiseman family from Nashville to Memphis for his senior season of high school. Oh, by the way, Wiseman was the No. 1 player in the 2019 recruiting class and is projected by some to be the top player in the 2020 NBA draft.

Then there's 6-5 freshman guard Lester Quinones, he of the old-school short shorts and a hand injury that's kept him out the last four games after he averaged 10.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and three assists through the first six.

Nor was this any old road game the Tigers won. The Volunteers entered the day owning the nation's longest home-court winning streak at 31 games. Thanks to perhaps the best atmosphere in the history of the Boling Alley for an opponent other than Kentucky, Tennessee looked more than ready to add to that total when the Big Orange took a 17-5 lead with 8:48 to play in the opening half.

But then the Tigers dug deep. They outscored the Vols 20-7 the rest of the half to lead by one at intermission, 25-24. Tennessee's Jordan Bowden scored the first points of the second half to move the Vols back in front by one, but he would score only three more points the rest of the way, hitting just two of 10 shots, which, amazingly, wasn't much worse than his teammates. They bagged 15 of 60 field-goal attempts (25 %).

"I don't think our offense was good at any point in time," said losing coach Rick Barnes, mindful that his top two scorers for the season — Bowden and Lamonte Turner — combined to miss 18 of 21 field-goal tries and finish with 10 points combined.

"A couple times we did what we wanted to do. We ran something. We did some things, but we didn't consistently do it."

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University of Memphis men's basketball coach Penny Hardaway talks to his players during a timeout during the second half of Saturday's game against Tennessee in Knoxville. Memphis won 51-47. / AP Photo by Wade Payne

Added Hardaway of Bowden's and Turner's struggles: "Those are two terrific players, two senior guards. To have them shoot like this, I don't think they'll ever shoot like this again in their career."

It wasn't like Memphis made a bunch more shots. The Tigers hit four more total field goals and one more 3-pointer. They made five fewer free throws.

But they made enough of the plays they had to make to have Hardaway say afterward, "Best win of my college career. Thirty-one straight teams had come in here and lost."

The bigger question is whether these two programs ever will meet again, at least as long as Barnes is at Tennessee, after the current contract is fulfilled following next year's game in Nashville.

It was only a year ago, Hardaway's first coaching his alma mater, that a scuffle broke out at the close of a Tennessee win in the FedEx Forum against Memphis. Barnes insinuated the Tigers were "flopping" to draw charging fouls.

Hardaway said the Vols coach's comments were "low class."

Though the two exchanged a cordial embrace prior to Saturday's game and Hardaway admitted his comments looked worse a year later, Barnes didn't seem eager to promise a contract renewal.

"We'll look at it, but we're always going to do what we think is right for us," he said. "I'm not saying we will or we won't (continue the series), but that's where we are."

Meanwhile, Hardaway, flush with the joy of a big victory by what is believed to be the youngest team in college basketball this year, was all in for a renewal.

"I would love to keep it going," he said. "Got out of hand last year. But I think it should continue. Great rivalry."

It should continue, because it's good for the state. It puts college basketball to the front of the sports page just before bowl season and the NFL playoffs take over.

But there's also this: Tennessee lost at home to a team playing without a potential No. 1 draft pick. With two senior guards of much acclaim, it lost to the youngest team in the land. If this is what Hardaway can do following his first full recruiting cycle, the Tigers just might become the toast of Tennessee for years to come.

"This was an NCAA tournament game," Hardaway said.

It wasn't, and Hardaway's college career is now just one season and 10 games old. But if that's enough time for him to craft a bunch of diaper dandies playing without their dandiest freshman into a team capable of halting the nation's longest home-court winning streak, Saturday may have also given us a preview of a team capable of reaching the NCAA tournament's Final Four come March.

And that team wasn't Tennessee.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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