6. Basketball: Mizzou Makes Elite Eight Run (2002)
Missouri made two runs to the Elite Eight in the 2000s -- one we think about constantly, the other we've just about forgotten. It's easy to brush aside most or all of the Quin Snyder era as a failure, but that's pretty unfair to both the players Snyder coached and the moments some of them created. It all peaked for two weekends in March 2002, when it looked like Missouri might have finally turned the corner we had all hoped it would turn.
We know how the season started. Mizzou uncorked a fun, drama-laden winning streak that took them to 9-0 and ranked second in the country. They had it all -- depth in the backcourt (Clarence Gilbert, Wesley Stokes, etc.), the conference's best scorer (Kareem Rush), a wing with insane athleticism (Rickey Paulding), an interior scoring presence and shot-blocker (Arthur Johnson), and a deep roster. And as mentioned in other posts, they seemed to have fate on their side. Mizzou beat Iowa and St. Louis in ultra-dramatic fashion ... but the magic ran out in the Fire Code game, when an oversold Hearnes Center was almost literally packed to the rafters (a situation that started to feel somewhat dangerous when Rickey Paulding went up about 12 feet to throw down one of the greatest alley-oops any of us will ever see, and it almost literally felt like the building was going to come apart at the seams) and Iowa laid a revenge whooping on Mizzou. The 18-point loss set off a mid-season slump that would almost hurt Mizzou as bad as a similar slump did in 2003-04. Mizzou would go 6-6 over the next six weeks, losing to Illinois, a bad DePaul team, an iffy Iowa State team, and Oklahoma before getting massacred in Lawrence, 105-73, a loss punctuated by Arthur Johnson coming up about a foot short on a dunk attempt and Mizzou getting basically laughed off the court.
Mizzou looked like they were beginning to turn things around when they beat a Top 10 (and about to collapse magnificently) Virginia team -- Mizzou fans inexplicably rushed the court for this one, and I'm still annoyed by that -- but then they lost three of four, first to a god-awful Baylor team, then to Texas, and then in blowout fashion to Bobby Knight's Texas Tech squad (91-68) in Lubbock. Suddenly Mizzou was 18-9 with an iffy RPI (they had played some good teams, but the bad teams they played were really bad, and it resulted in a change in Mizzou's non-conference scheduling philosophy in future years -- they would replace the Grambling's of the world with the American U's of the world) and just a 7-6 conference record. They knocked off Colorado in Boulder (Clarence went 12-for-17 from 3-point range) and Oklahoma State at home, seemingly wrapping up their NCAA Tourney bid, but as we were soon to learn, that was stlll a bit up in the air. Mizzou finished the regular season with a 3-point home loss to one of Roy Williams' best Kansas teams (Collison, Hinrich, Gooden, Boschee) and a 4-point loss in the Big 12 Tournament to a loaded Texas squad (T.J. Ford, Royal Ivey, Brandon Mouton), but still ... they were 21-11, with a winning record in a good conference, and they were one of the more recognizable teams on the NCAA bubble ...
...and they got into the NCAA Tournament as a 12-seed. TWELVE. That's the seed that goes to the very last at-large bids! Now, I still somewhat believe that they were really probably about a 10-seed that had to be moved into the other side of the bracket because of where their other conference mates ended up, but still ... this was quite the slap in the face to a team that thought it would be competing for a 2- or 3- (or even 1-) seed a couple of months earlier. How would they respond? Would they come out against 5-seed Miami with fire, or would they finish a somewhat disappointing season with a whimper in Albuquerque?
They, uh, responded pretty well.
Miami was potentially the worst 5-seed in the tournament, and they had to be filled with a sense of dread pretty early on in the game, when it was clear that Good Mizzou was in attendance. The Tigers blitzed the Hurricanes out of the gate, scoring in balanced fashion and jumping out to a 12-0 lead in the game's first three minutes. But unlike the season before, when Mizzou went up 15-0 on Georgia, then rather quickly blew the lead, this one was really never in doubt. Miami cut the lead to 5 at 23-18, but that was pretty much it. A Najeeb Echols (!) layup gave Mizzou an 8-point lead at halftime, and a 15-6 run to start the second half put this one out of reach. Miami forwards Darius Rice and James Jones combined to go 6-for-27 from the field (1-for-9 from 3-point range), while Mizzou had SIX players in double digits (Clarence led the way with 20 points ... on 4-for-16 shooting, very Clarence-esque) and Kareem Rush had seven assists. This was the best Mizzou had looked since early-December, and it was about to get better.
With about three minutes left in the Miami game, The Beef and I looked at each other ... and one of us (I don't even remember which) said, "We're going to Albuquerque, aren't we?" It was a foregone conclusion. So we left the next morning, kidnapping a friend of mine in Stillwater along the way. And thank god we did.
For roughly the first two "rounds" (i.e. TV timeout segments), this game was close, at least on the scoreboard. Mizzou had already jumped out to a 5- and 7-point lead, but Ohio State was making just enough shots to keep it at 18-15 with 11 minutes left in the first half. For the next 20 minutes, Mizzou would outscore the Buckeyes 49-24. Until the 2009 Sweet Sixteen game against Memphis, this was almost certainly the best 20 minutes of Mizzou basketball the decade produced. In building a 47-26 halftime lead, they outshot the Ohio State 49%-35%, shooting both over the Buckeyes (6-for-13 from 3-point range, to 0-for-7 for Ohio State) and through them, grabbing TWELVE offensive rebounds and out-boarding them for the half, 31-14. Oh, and they blocked four shots to boot.
Oh yeah, and this happened.
After this dunk, 100% of the drunken (GOD were they drunk and fun ... it was amazing) Wyoming fans in attendance (the Cowboys were playing Arizona in the second game) adopted Mizzou, giving the Tigers a strange homecourt advantage over the small Buckeye cheering section and the neutral Arizona fans. It was just a giddy experience all the way around.
On the looooooooong drive home from New Mexico, we listened to the UCLA-Cincinnati game. Cincy was the 1-seed (still a sham that they got the #1 over Oklahoma), and we were actually rooting for them to take out the nation's other dangerous under-achiver, the eighth-seeded Bruins. Alas, UCLA won in overtime, and Mizzou was in for a dogfight. The UCLA game produced every bit as much anxiety as the Ohio State game had produced thrill. And it really didn't look good for Mizzou early. Clarence Gilbert dislocated a finger in the opening minute of the game, but because he was Clarence Effing Gilbert, he just had it popped back into place and went back into the game. Mizzou led at halftime, 30-28, but the game felt like it was being played on UCLA's terms. The Bruins grabbed nine first-half offensive rebounds, Mizzou committed ten turnovers, and Gilbert and Rush had combined to go just 1-for-5 from 3-point range. Mizzou led thanks to Rickey Paulding's 11 points and the 5-point, 6-rebound effort A.J. had managed, but things were far from steady, and UCLA knew it. They came out swinging in the second half, outscoring Mizzou 21-11 (Crazy Matt Barnes scored seven straight points at one point) in a frenetic first five minutes of the second half.
But this wasn't your stereotypical (at the time) Missouri team. They absorbed UCLA's best shot and kept jabbing away. First, AJ got a dunk. Then, Justin Gage (it is impossible to overstate how important his toughness was to this run) grabbed an offensive rebound and found Rush for a 3-pointer. 49-44. Then Gilbert manufactured an old-fashioned 3-point play. 51-47. After two free throws from AJ, Gilbert made a 3. 55-54. Kareem for 3. 57-57. Clarence for 3. 60-59 Mizzou. Kareem for 3 again! 63-59. Mizzou overtook UCLA by outlasting them and devastating them with pure Mizzou basketball. From there, Mizzou kept their foot on the gas. AJ got a 3-point play to open up a 68-61 lead, then yet another Clarence 3 with 3:42 left made it 73-63. Flawless free-throw shooting from Gilbert and Wesley Stokes never allowed UCLA to have a chance, and a Mizzou team that was dying in mid-February was one more game away from playing into April.
Of course, that didn't happen. Instead, OU knocked Mizzou off in the Elite Eight, requiring every bit of a historically bad shooting day from Clarence and AJ (referenced in the honorable mention section here). But as with Mizzou's brief stay at #1 in football and the Elite Eight run of 2009 (and the Volleyball run in 2005), Mizzou's run to seemingly just inches short of the promised land was both exhilarating and proof that everything the coach at hand (in this case, Quin) had a purpose and potential. It was a wonderful nine days of Mizzou basketball, and it created enough memorable plays and feelings that it was the sixth-best moment(s) of the Mizzou decade.