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.
There are great seasons and terrible seasons, but no season in Missouri history can match the highs, lows and complicated real-life drama of 1988-89.
There has never been another season like it, none that flirted so closely with triumph and tragedy, none in which such intense pressure collided with such ferocious play. The 1988–89 Tigers played for their own pride, for the integrity of the institution, and for the coach they nearly lost along the way.
The chemistry absent the previous season returned with a vengeance. Byron Irvin emerged as the team’s top player, Doug Smith blossomed into a star, and Lee Coward, Gary Leonard, Mike Sandbothe, Greg Church, Nathan Buntin, and freshman Anthony Peeler, a high school All-American with jaw-dropping skills, each played key roles. Together, they were selfless, relentless, and unified, as fearless as the coach who guided them.
Early on, the Tigers ravaged lesser teams and ran a gauntlet of national powers. After opening the season ranked number fourteen, they advanced to the semifinals of the preseason NIT in New York, where Byron Irvin scored twenty-one points as Missouri easily handled fifth-ranked North Carolina. In the title game against sixth-rated Syracuse, the Tigers fell in overtime 86–84. Despite the loss, Mizzou vaulted into the top ten. A week later, at a four-team tournament in Charlotte, the Tigers rallied from sixteen points down to force two overtimes against Temple. Irvin scored seven of his thirty-three points in the second extra period as Mizzou buried the Owls. Norm Stewart called the 91–74 result "just your routine seventeen-point double-overtime victory." In the final, the Tigers met North Carolina for the second time in ten days and gave the season’s first disappointing performance, turning the ball over twenty-eight times in a 76–60 loss.
Missouri’s only other nonleague loss came by three points to fifth-ranked Illinois. The Tigers completed their nonconference blitz with wins over Arkansas, Memphis State, and Maryland, among others. Mizzou maintained its winning ways into the Big Eight schedule and delivered an emphatic statement in Lawrence. In their first meeting with new Jayhawk coach Roy Williams, the Tigers crushed Kansas. Irvin, Coward, and Peeler scorched KU from the perimeter in a 91–66 triumph, the Jayhawks’ worst-ever loss at Allen Field House. Missouri’s tenth straight win—and the Tigers’ thirteenth-straight game shooting over 50 percent from the field—moved the team to 5–0 in the league. After beating Kansas State to move to 20–3 overall, the Tigers rose to number three in the polls. And then all hell broke loose.
Shortly after arriving at Mizzou in the fall of 1988, P. J. Mays, a freshman from Cincinnati, was ruled ineligible to play basketball. His story was disappointing but unexceptional until assistant coach Bob Sundvold acknowledged lending Mays money for a flight home in an effort to clear up his academic record. The loan violated NCAA rules, and on the evening of February 8, Sundvold was suspended pending investigation. That left the Tigers with just two coaches—Stewart and assistant Rich Daly—as they prepared to play fifth-ranked Oklahoma the next day in Norman.
The team boarded two small charter planes late in the morning. Stewart and Daly traveled with the freshmen and reserves. As the planes neared their destination, Stewart became dizzy and pale, then passed out. Daly feared that the coach was having a heart attack. The plane descended into Oklahoma City, and an ambulance took Stewart to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer and kept overnight. While Stewart stayed behind, Rich Daly and a shaken team carried on to Norman. In less than a day, Missouri’s coaching staff had dwindled from three to one.
Before a packed Lloyd Noble Center and a national television audience, the Tigers played like nothing had happened. In the late 1980s, Big Eight basketball moved like lightning, and no one played faster than Oklahoma. But the Tigers opened the game at warp speed, scoring on their first four possessions to take an 8–0 lead. Missouri extended the margin to 18–5 before Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs earned a technical foul. The lead stood at 21–8 when fans began to litter the floor with debris. When the officials asked Tubbs to calm the crowd, the chronically cantankerous coach doused fire with gasoline, taking the microphone and saying, "The referees request that regardless of how terrible the officiating is, do not throw stuff on the floor." Tubbs drew another technical, and the fans gave him their thunderous approval. Byron Irvin made both free throws, but Tubbs’s outburst had the desired effect. His fired-up team went on a 28–9 run, and one of the great regular season games played anywhere, ever, was on.
After a 53–53 tie at halftime, the teams sprinted toward triple digits in the second half. Stacey King, Mookie Blaylock and Tyrone Jones carried Oklahoma, while six Tigers scored in double figures. Players flew up and down the floor, one tremendous play after another, none quite as spectacular as Anthony Peeler’s sinister dunk over a thicket of Sooner hands.
Oklahoma led 102–101 with 1:12 to play when Stacey King went to the free throw line. After making his first attempt, he missed the second, but the rebound caromed out of bounds off a Missouri player. Oklahoma inbounded the ball and Mike Sandbothe fouled Skeeter Henry. Henry made his first free throw to give OU a 104–101 lead. He missed his next try, but King snatched the rebound, scored, and was fouled. When he made the ensuing free throw, Oklahoma led 107–101. After scoring five points in a decisive twenty-second span, the Sooners held on to win 112–105. It was a classic game, the drama heightened by the events of the previous twenty-four hours. On a night when Oklahoma would have beaten any team in the country, the Sooners were the only team in the country that could have beaten Missouri.
The next day, the off-court stories continued to develop as NCAA officials met with P. J. Mays’s mother, and Norm Stewart was flown home and admitted to Columbia Regional Hospital. But on the court, the Tigers prepared to host Kansas.
Rich Daly’s second game as head coach came against Mizzou’s greatest rival. It wasn’t as easy as it had been in Lawrence, but the result was the same. A record crowd of 13,706 saw the Tigers win 93–80 to move into a first-place tie with Oklahoma. Even as chaos reigned around them, the Tigers maintained their poise.
But then the strain began to show. Norm Stewart’s diagnosis proved far more serious than first reported. On Valentine’s Day, Stewart underwent surgery for colon cancer. The players learned of the operation shortly before playing at Iowa State, their third game in six strange days. A step slower than normal, the Tigers lost by seven.
It was the start of an erratic stretch. Leonard and Peeler combined for fifty-five points in an easy win over Nebraska, but the Tigers wilted in the final minutes of a loss at Oklahoma State. Then they hosted a rematch with Oklahoma, which had risen to number one in the polls. Missouri trailed by one at the half, when Stewart, who was watching on television, called to tell the team to loosen up and have some fun. The advice worked. The Tigers used a 20–2 run to secure a 97–84 win, led by Irvin (thirty-four points, nine rebounds, six assists) and Peeler (eighteen points, ten rebounds, six assists). It marked the first time Mizzou had ever beaten the nation’s top-ranked team.
Four days later in Manhattan, Greg Church played the game of his life, scoring thirty-one points on ten of twelve shooting from the floor and eleven of eleven from the line. But when K-State’s Tony Massop tipped in a shot just before the buzzer, the Wildcats won 76–75. Mizzou’s play was up and down, and so was the team’s attitude as players adjusted to their new circumstances. While Norm Stewart convalesced at home, word got back to him that players were testing Daly’s authority. Stewart snuck out of the house and went to the Hearnes Center, where he assembled his team. In terse language, he told them to play basketball and keep their mouths shut. "If Coach Daly asks you to stand on your head and crap through your nose," he said, "you stand on your head and blow." With that, the mutiny was quelled.
Church gave another stellar effort on a senior day he shared with Sandbothe, Leonard, and Irvin. The Hammer scored Mizzou’s last thirteen points in a 66–65 win over Colorado that ended the regular season and sent the Tigers to the league tournament as the number two seed.
Al Eberhard, the great player from the 1970s, had joined the team as a temporary assistant coach, and his influence on Doug Smith became apparent over three days at Kemper Arena. Missouri routed Nebraska in the opening round, and Mike Sandbothe articulated the team’s regained focus. "We played a great game together," he said. "Forget about the negative points. Bring out the positive. Let’s play basketball."
That’s what they did in the semifinal against Kansas State, where Smith scored twenty-two points to lead Mizzou to victory, setting up another match with Oklahoma. Again, the Tigers had no answer for Stacey King, who scored thirty-eight points, but they shackled the rest of the Sooners. Oklahoma, on the other hand, could not stop Byron Irvin (twenty-nine points) or tournament MVP Smith, whose twenty-two points and fourteen rebounds paced Missouri to a 98–86 win and their fourth Big Eight postseason tournament title.
The sixth-ranked Tigers were seeded third in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region. If Norm Stewart’s cancer and the NCAA investigation did anything positive, it was to ease concerns about Mizzou’s recent tournament history. Having withstood so much, the Tigers couldn’t be bothered with fear of losing in the opening round. And while they started slowly against fourteenth-seeded Creighton, the Tigers smoked the Blue Jays in the second half to break Missouri’s five-game tournament drought. Even after trailing by two at the break, Daly said his mind never wandered to earlier disappointments. "For some reason," he said, "there’s a feeling about these players that somewhere along the line, somebody out there is going to start doing it for us." In this case, it was Byron Irvin, who scored twenty of his twenty-five points after intermission in the 85–69 win.
In the second round, Mizzou clobbered Texas 108–89 as Doug Smith scored thirty-two. The victory put the Tigers in the Sweet Sixteen, where they again met Syracuse four months after playing the Orangemen at Madison Square Garden.
Playing in Minneapolis, Mizzou put together a solid effort against a talented squad led by Sherman Douglas and Derrick Coleman. The Tigers led 42–40 at halftime and extended the lead to 47–40 before the wheels temporarily came off. While the Tigers took bad shots, committed fouls, and turned the ball over, Syracuse went on a shot-making binge and used a 16–2 run to take a 56–49 lead. Try as they might, the Tigers could not reel Syracuse in. Douglas made six free throws in the late stages to fend off Missouri’s comeback attempt. The Tigers fell 83–80 to end the most dramatic season in their history.
The loss also ended the most dramatic decade in Mizzou’s history, one that produced five conference championships, three conference tournament titles, and eight NCAA Tournament appearances. Never before had the Tigers sustained such a level of excellence over such a long period. Still, questions remained, including whether Mizzou’s legendary coach would return to the bench. That question was answered with an emphatic yes at the dawn of yet another decade of championship Missouri Tigers basketball.