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.
Our second installment takes us back to the 1986-87 season, when freshman Lee Coward earned a nickname that would stick with him forever – Jayhawk Assassin.
Even after the NCAA appearance, no great expectations greeted the Tigers to start the 1986-87 season. The Tigers did nothing to raise hopes when they muddled through their non-conference schedule, going 10-6 without a single impressive win.
After six weeks of nondescript basketball, the Tigers showed signs of life in the league opener against 11th-ranked Oklahoma. Missouri led by 15 midway through the second half, before Oklahoma rallied to take a six-point lead with less than three minutes to play. But the Tigers turned steals and clutch free throws into a 13-3 run, and captured an 87-83 win. Derrick Chievous, with 34 points and 11 rebounds, narrowly won the head-to-head battle with Sooner Harvey Grant, while Missouri’s supporting cast made the difference. Lynn Hardy scored 18 points, and 6’9” freshman Nathan Buntin contributed 16.
With that, Missouri was off and running, the surprise team in the Big Eight. A one-point loss at Kansas was the only blemish in the first six conference games, a stretch that saw big scoring performances from Chievous and Buntin. At 5-1, Mizzou stood in a three-way tie with Kansas and Oklahoma at the top of the standings. But just as quickly, the Tigers began to slide back to the pack. After losses to Iowa State and Oklahoma, Mizzou fell behind by two games. But the Tigers were about to impose their will on the rest of the league in a way that no one could have foreseen, beginning with one dramatic play.
On February 11, Kansas visited Columbia, and the score stood tied at 60 with under 15 seconds to play when Mike Sandbothe took a pass from Chievous under the basket. Before he could shoot, Sandbothe got fouled and fell to the floor, incapacitated by leg cramps. Norm Stewart tapped reserve guard Devon Rolf to shoot the one-and-one in Sandbothe’s place. Rolf missed the first shot, but Greg Church, Missouri’s consummate role player, grabbed the rebound, and passed the ball out to Lynn Hardy, who swung it to Lee Coward in the corner. Coward, a freshman guard from Detroit, stood behind the three-point line, which was used throughout college basketball for the first time that season. He rose and let fly a shot that splashed home. The capacity crowd erupted as Missouri won, 63-60, though it all seemed routine to Coward. “It wasn’t hard. I have done that in high school all the time,” he said. That same night, Oklahoma lost to Oklahoma State. MU, at 6-3, trailed the Sooners and Jayhawks by one game. The race was on.
Mizzou made strides in its next game, at Oklahoma State, using a 15-4 run in the final five minutes to win, 69-68. That same day, Kansas beat OU. At 7-3, Missouri stood tied with Oklahoma, one game back of KU.
Before the Tigers’ next game, the race tightened after Kansas lost at Iowa State. When Nebraska visited Columbia, Gary Leonard’s 15-point, 11-rebound effort paced Missouri to an 80-64 win and a three-way tie for first with three games to play. The unlikely contenders maintained the tie with a win at Colorado, before traveling to Manhattan, and taking control of the race.
On a day when Oklahoma lost at Iowa State, Missouri topped Kansas State; late free throws by Buntin and Church sealed an 80-75 win. When Kansas lost the next night at Colorado, Missouri stood alone in first with one game to play, assured at least a share of the championship.
Then, behind 26 points and 12 rebounds from Chievous, and 22 points from Hardy, Mizzou beat Iowa State in the regular season finale, securing the title outright with an 11-3 record. The Hearnes Center remained packed well past the final buzzer, transformed into a giant dance party. As speakers blared “Kansas City here I come,” the Tigers cut down the nets. Norm Stewart was impressed with his young team’s chemistry. “It’s a good group of people and an interesting blend,” he said. “For the most part, this group has been easy to encourage in games.”
The Tigers entered the conference tournament as the top seed. At number 19 in the polls, the champs had earned their first national ranking of the season. They survived an opening round scare against Colorado, winning a game that was tied late. Before the game, Colorado forward Dan Becker said he had a strong feeling that the Buffs would win. “He should have had a stronger feeling,” quipped Norm Stewart.
In the semifinals against Kansas State, Buntin scored 28 points, and MU rallied from 12 down in the second half to win, 72-69. After the game, Lon Kruger, K-State’s coach, articulated what his peers around the league had begun to understand. “Missouri won the conference,” he said, “because they’re tougher than anyone else.” Nearly lost in the victory was a remarkable personal milestone. Derrick Chievous scored 20 and surpassed Steve Stipanovich as Missouri’s career scoring leader. And he had a full season left to play.
The tourney final provided the rubber match in the season series with Kansas. The game was nasty and physical, even by the rivalry’s standards. Early on, KU’s Sean Alvarado caught Lynn Hardy with an elbow under the eye, opening a cut that required stitches. Norm Stewart stormed onto the court, where Kansas coach Larry Brown met him for an impromptu and impolite summit meeting. In the second half, some shoving between Mike Sandbothe and Jayhawk Chris Piper evolved into a full-scale scrum as players began to push one another. The entire game crackled with a dark energy. “We were all walking that thin line between competition and combat,” said Gary Leonard, who expressed relief that the game wasn’t marred by a full-fledged brawl. “We can fight later,” he said.
The ending mirrored the earlier meeting in Columbia. With the score tied and less than 20 seconds left, Sandbothe went to the free throw line to shoot a one-and-one. He missed the first shot, and bodies crashed for the rebound. Lynn Hardy grabbed it, and found Lee Coward at the free throw line. The ruthless freshman hit the tournament-winning jumper with just four seconds left, an echo of the shot he sank at the Hearnes Center. With regular season and conference tournament trophies in hand, the confident Tigers strutted on to the NCAA Tournament.
Missouri, the number four seed in the Midwest Region, opened against 13th-seeded Xavier, a team about to make a big splash. After Mizzou rushed to an 11-4 lead, Xavier awoke. The Muskateers, led by 13 boards from future NBA forward Tyrone Hill, dominated Mizzou on the glass. Xavier also dominated Missouri at the free throw line, where Byron Larkin converted 16 shots. Meanwhile, Xavier’s defense double-teamed Chievous, limiting him to 16 points on 11 field goal attempts. The result was a shocking 70-69 loss. The tournament had barely begun, and one of the nation’s hottest teams was gone. After giving Xavier credit, Norm Stewart said “we were just flat. Our legs were dead. . . . . We left part of ourselves in Kansas City.”
It was a huge disappointment, but Missouri remained flush with hope for the next season. The entire team would return, including Chievous, who led the conference in scoring, and earned spots on the All-Big Eight team and various second and third-team All-America squads. The veterans would be joined by a talented crop of newcomers, making Mizzou a favorite in the conference, and a preseason top ten team. But things didn’t go quite as planned.