Memorable Mizzou Postseason Moments (Part Six): 1976

With college basketball's postseason is upon us, there is no better time to reflect on previous Mizzou postseason magic.  To do that, we will turn to the history book to end all Mizzou Basketball history books.


True Sons, A Century of Missouri Tigers Basketball by Michael Atchison traces the first hundred years of the Mizzou hoops program with recaps of each season and more than 300 photographs.  The book may be purchased from the Mizzou Alumni Association for $35 plus shipping by calling (573) 882-6611 or (800) 372-6822.

Part One: 1978
Part Two: 1987
Part Three: 1991
Part Four: 1993
Part Five: 1944

In the 1975-76 season, Missouri’s 32-year absence from the NCAA Tournament ended with the wave of a magic wand.

***

When jazz fan Willie Smith asked Mizzou’s pep band to learn Grover Washington’s "Mister Magic," he simultaneously earned a theme song and a nickname that fit his ability to perform the paranormal with his left-handed jump shot. In Smith’s final season, the magician’s assistants were mostly the same as the year before, though a pair of newcomers countered the losses of Bill Flamank and Gail Wolf. Freshman Stan Ray, a center from Cape Girardeau, and forward James Clabon, a junior college transfer, matched the lost production point for point, rebound for rebound.

The Tigers won seven of nine before the holiday tournament, even winning at Hawaii with four players on the floor at the end after the other six members of the traveling squad fouled out. In Kansas City, Mizzou topped Oklahoma State and Kansas State to set up a rare event, a title game pitting Missouri against Kansas for the first time since 1951.

The Jayhawks, featuring stalwart forward Norm Cook and freshman seven-footer Paul Mokeski, towered over the Tigers. Still, before fifteen thousand fans at Kemper Arena, Missouri dominated the boards. Smith and Kennedy combined for forty-nine points in a 79–69 win that gave Mizzou its fourth title in five years. Smith earned MVP honors and some facetiously faint praise from his coach. "Willie Smith is a pretty decent ball player," said Norm Stewart.  

Missouri readied for the Big Eight season with a pair of nonconference games, including a 106–34 demolition of little MacMurray College that set a Mizzou record for margin of victory. Norm Stewart tried to show mercy by lifting his starters early, but the reserves continued the carnage.

The MacMurray massacre revealed a mean streak, and when Kansas came to town, Mizzou savaged its archrival.

Smith, Ray, and Kennedy each scored more than twenty points in a 99–69 rout that started a march through the league. After the Tigers drubbed Oklahoma State, Cowboy coach Guy Strong called Missouri "one of the best teams in the Big Eight that I’ve seen in several years." Willie Smith, in the midst of a sensational season, scored thirty-two points in a win over Iowa State and reached one thousand career points faster than any previous Tiger. By the time the Tigers hosted Kansas State, they stood 5–0 in the conference.

The Wildcats, behind thirty-two points from Chuckie Williams, handed Missouri its first league loss. Undeterred, the Tigers collected wins at Colorado and Oklahoma State and whipped Iowa State before heading to Kansas. Down by one in the closing seconds at Allen Field House, Willie Smith rose above a sea of bodies, grabbed an offensive rebound, and scored at the buzzer. With four games to play, Missouri stood a game ahead of Kansas State.

But after Kim Anderson scored eleven in overtime to beat Nebraska, cold shooting and foul trouble derailed the Tigers at Oklahoma. That weekend, Kansas State won to tie the Tigers at the top of the standings, setting up a showdown in Manhattan. It would be, for all intents and purposes, the Big Eight championship game. And it would be played in a gym where the Tigers had lost ten straight. The title, once there for the taking, suddenly appeared in doubt. Nearly forty years of history worked against Mizzou. But that history vanished with the wave of a wand as a packed Ahearn Field House experienced a Magic show.  

Willie Smith put up gaudy numbers throughout his career at Missouri, but he was never motivated by individual glory. He scored for the good of the team. Smith and his teammates came from diverse backgrounds, but they shared a blinding desire to win. Even more than he loved to win, though, Mr. Magic hated to be embarrassed. One of the proudest players ever to wear the black and gold, Smith took defeat personally. Late into the night before the Kansas State game, Smith and roommate Jeff Currie talked about the mission that faced them. K-State’s guards Chuckie Williams and Mike Evans formed one of the nation’s best backcourts, and they had humiliated the Tigers a month earlier by leaving the Hearnes Center with a win, the only time Smith ever tasted defeat in Columbia. Already keyed up for the challenge, Smith found further motivation during the walk from Mizzou’s hotel to the field house. Kansas State’s fans were out in force, taunting the Tigers along the way. Smith was incensed, but managed to keep a cool exterior. "Just wait till you get inside," he thought to himself.

Once inside, Smith erupted. He scored twenty-two points in the first half, but the Tigers could manage just a three-point lead. So he kept scoring. Missouri led 73–72 with ninety seconds to play when Smith flashed into the lane and sank a jump shot, and the Tigers pulled away to an 81–72 triumph. Smith, who scored thirty-eight points, felt vindicated. "We wanted this one," he said. "We had a lot of things we wanted to prove."

The Tigers proved plenty. They clinched a share of the conference title, their first since 1940, and gave themselves a chance to secure the championship outright for the first time since 1930. When Colorado visited on the season’s final Saturday, the anxiety that preceded the K-State game gave way to dead calm.  A confident Missouri team marched from the locker room to the floor, where they crushed the Buffaloes.

Five Tigers reached double figures in a game that was over by halftime. Mizzou led by twenty-nine at the break and won 95–60 in a performance so businesslike that the team forgot to celebrate. Afterwards, Jim Kennedy said, "It wasn’t until we were in the shower when someone said, ‘Hey, we didn’t even cut the nets down.’"

Norm Stewart and his team, having accomplished so much, had little time to savor their achievement. They had a national championship to play for. The experience was new to the Tigers, but the location was not. The Tigers opened NCAA Tournament play against the Washington Huskies in a familiar environment—Allen Field House on the campus of the University of Kansas.

In Lawrence, the composure that had marked Missouri’s season evaporated. By the time the Tigers shook off the nerves, they trailed by eleven points. But they came back by going right at Washington’s enormous front line. With the score tied at 65 and under a minute to play, Jim Kennedy drove to the basket and collided with seven-foot James Edwards. A controversial blocking call sent Edwards to the bench with five fouls. Kennedy sank two free throws to give MU a 67–65 lead. After that, free throws by Willie Smith and Scott Sims wrapped up a 69–67 win, and the Tigers were pleased to escape. "That was one of the worst games we’ve played all year," said Smith.

After a shaky effort against Washington, Smith starred against Texas Tech in the regional semifinal in Louisville. He sank long shots, crashed the glass, dished to Kennedy and Anderson for easy buckets, and finished with thirty points, ten rebounds, and seven assists. "Smith was everything we heard he was," lamented Tech coach Gerald Myers. The Tigers’ 86–75 victory moved them to the verge of the Final Four. Kim Anderson captured the team’s mood: "We’re confident that we’ll continue to play well, and we have nothing to be ashamed of—win or lose."

Despite their confidence, the Tigers came out flat in the regional final against Michigan. Willie Smith scored just two points in the first ten minutes, and Missouri trailed by eighteen. Then Smith began to warm up, and Mizzou cut Michigan’s lead to thirteen at the break. Years later, Smith confessed, "We didn’t think they could beat us at all . . . but their intensity level was higher." The intensity deficit vanished in the second half. The Tigers turned it up by turning to their All-American, who responded with the greatest twenty minutes ever played by a Missouri Tiger.

Smith shredded the Wolverine defense. He shot the ball arrow-straight and feather-soft. He hit turnarounds, floaters, and shots off the dribble. Each time down, his range expanded. He hit from twenty feet, then twenty-four as Michigan’s lead vanished in a rainstorm of jump shots. With under eight minutes to play, Smith sank an unconscionably long jumper and got mugged by Michigan’s Rickey Green. When Smith sank the free throw, Missouri led 76–71. The Final Four was within reach.

But then the wheels came off. The Tigers held the lead when Kim Anderson hurtled down the court on a fast break. He soared toward the rim and got undercut by a defender. In an instinctive effort to keep from falling, Anderson’s layup turned into a dunk as he grabbed the rim for protection. But dunking had been outlawed in NCAA basketball. The officials waved off the hoop and called a technical foul, giving Michigan free throws and the ball, and instantly changing the game. While Michigan capitalized on the controversial call, the Tigers, a 71 percent free throw shooting team, crumbled at the stripe in the final minutes and lost three starters when Anderson, Kennedy, and Currie fouled out. After thundering into the lead, the Tigers faded into history 95–88.

Still, all anyone could talk about was Willie Smith. His twenty-nine second-half points gave him forty-three for the game, the top performance in the entire tournament. More than two hundred media members cast ballots for the regional’s most outstanding player award, and all but one voted for Smith.  

Observers were mesmerized. "I can’t think of any words to describe what he does," Kim Anderson confessed, while Michigan coach Johnny Orr called Smith’s effort "one of the greatest shooting exhibitions that I have ever seen." "If there is a better [player]," said Norm Stewart, "I haven’t seen him." But Smith, the ultimate competitor, took no solace in the recognition. "I cried," he says. "We should have won."

Though Jim Kennedy and Kim Anderson earned individual honors (first- and second-team All–Big Eight, respectively), the season belonged to Willie Smith. Even as he shot at a record rate, Smith displayed a knack for delivering the ball to teammates in position to score. His 138 assists established a new single-season record. He also managed to pull down 5.7 rebounds per game from the perimeter.

But more than anything, Smith scored. His 783 points and 25.3 point-per-game average established new single-season records, and his 23.9 career scoring average bettered John Brown’s mark by more than four points per game. In just two seasons, Willie Smith rewrote the record book and redefined the program. He was a comet at the edge of the atmosphere, streaking in from nowhere, showering sparks, and disappearing, like magic, before anyone could make sense of him.

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