If there were any justice in this world, Mizzou would have figured out a way past Michigan in the 1976 Elite Eight, not only because it would have scratched Norm Stewart's name off of the "best coach never to reach a Final Four" list rather early in his career, but also because it could have made Willie Smith a name that still sticks in basketball's national consciousness today. His unbelievable 43-point performance versus the Wolverines wouldn't have been in a losing cause, and who the heck knows what he might have done in the Final Four if given the opportunity.
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."
The final tally: 39 minutes, 43 points on 18-for-35 (!) shooting, 7-for-11 from the free throw line, seven rebounds, three assists.
In the grand Mizzou history book, one encompassing every sport, the phrase "But then the wheels came off" probably appears too much. (You don't need me to tell you that.) But even in a loss, Smith's performance, his last in the black and gold, was beyond special. As I'm writing this, I'm realizing that No. 26 is probably far too damn low.
Of course, Smith's career wasn't based around some random explosion. His performance against Michigan was the culmination of a ridiculous, explosive two seasons in Columbia. Again from Atch (always from Atch):
Willie Smith enjoyed the most spectacular two-year career in Missouri history. A junior college transfer, Mr. Magic was All-Big Eight as a junior. Then, as a senior, Smith produced the finest individual season ever by a Tiger, and won conference player of the year and All-America honors. Recruited for his defense, in 1974-75 Smith became the first Tiger to score 600 points in a season. The next year, he became the first to score 700, while also establishing a new Missouri single-season record for assists. A left-handed shooting guard, he had range well beyond 20 feet in an age before the three-point shot. In his electrifying senior campaign, Smith led Mizzou to its first conference title in 36 years and its first NCAA Tournament appearance in the modern era. He saved his best performance for last, raining 43 points on Michigan in the Tigers’ heartbreaking loss in the Elite Eight, an effort Tiger fans still speak of reverently. His 25.3 point per game average in 1975-76 is still a Missouri record, and his career average of 23.9 is a full four points ahead of his nearest competitor. The most explosive player ever to wear the uniform.
Every junior college transfer should be Willie Smith. Missouri's profile was rising when he arrived; it had risen by the time he left. And it sank for a while in his absence.