With college basketball's postseason 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.
Quin Snyder’s tenure at Mizzou routinely combined stunning highs and crushing lows, and the 2001-02 season was full of each. It was a year that started with enormous promise, descended into rank disappointment, and rebounded with one of the best post-season runs the program has known.
In Quin Snyder’s third year, the Missouri Tigers looked to fulfill the expectations that had arrived in Columbia with the young coach. Mizzou began the year ranked number eight, and steadily climbed to the headiest regions of the polls. Early on, the Tigers advanced to the semifinals of the Guardians Classic tournament in Kansas City, where they faced nationally-ranked Alabama in a tooth-and-nail affair that took a dramatic turn when an elbow to the head knocked Kareem Rush senseless late in the game. While Rush saw stars on the sideline, Clarence Gilbert willed the Tigers to a 75-68 victory.
In the final, against ninth-ranked Iowa, the drama rose even higher. Still feeling effects of the previous night’s blow, Kareem Rush struggled, and Missouri struggled along with him, trailing 73-62 with 2:15 to play. But wild defensive pressure and clutch shooting brought the Tigers roaring back. Rush nailed a three-pointer with thirty-six seconds left to close the gap to three points, and Rickey Paulding sank another trey twelve seconds later to tie the score at 77-77. Still, Iowa had a chance to win. But when Glen Worley missed a shot, Gilbert grabbed the ball and came screaming down the court. He stopped and tried to beat the buzzer with a jump shot, but Worley fouled him. With just eight-tenths of a second left, Gilbert went to the free throw line to shoot two, needing only one to secure an improbable victory. He missed the first shot. But he made the second, the last of 27 points that helped earn him tournament MVP honors. "I thought our kids showed unbelievable character," said a proud Quin Snyder.
From there, the Tigers kept climbing, overwhelming a series of opponents before rising to number two in the polls and visiting the St. Louis Billikens for a game that was a fight to the finish. After SLU’s Marque Perry tied the game with 4.8 seconds to play, Mizzou inbounded the ball to Wesley Stokes, who hurtled down the court. Even as Rush and Gilbert called for the ball, Stokes pulled up just inside the three-point line and shot. The ball fell through the hoop at the buzzer to give Missouri a spine-tingling 69-67 triumph. When the Tigers beat Southern University by 50 points three days later, they moved to 9-0 on the season, and looked like national title contenders. Then everything seemed to fall apart.
Iowa visited the Hearnes Center for a rematch of the Guardians Classic final, and the Hawkeyes came bent for revenge. They blistered Mizzou from start to finish, the 83-65 final score not fully indicative of the domination. "This one is going to sit heavy in our stomach," said Quin Snyder. The malaise continued through losses to Illinois and DePaul that knocked Missouri far down the polls.
The cohesiveness and relentlessness that marked Mizzou’s hot start had vanished, and a big reason was porous perimeter defense. As the team scuffled to regain its form, Snyder took a gamble and moved Clarence Gilbert to point guard, and slid Rickey Paulding into the starting lineup, making the Tigers bigger and more athletic. Putting the ball-hawking Gilbert at the point placed the Tigers’ focus more squarely on defense, even as it made for some awkward moments offensively. It also gave the vocal senior a more prominent podium. "When we lost Brian [Grawer] to graduation, it took almost a full season to replace his leadership," Quin Snyder says in retrospect. Moving Gilbert to the point was the first step in filling that void.
The Tigers won their first game with the new lineup (81-66 at Kansas State; Arthur Johnson posted 23 points and 15 boards), but the transition wasn’t easy. They beat most of the league’s lesser teams, but struggled against the top squads, including Oklahoma, which beat Missouri for the eighth straight time. And a one-point loss at perennial doormat Baylor threatened to dash MU’s post-season hopes.
Yet even as the Tigers struggled to find consistency, they gave fans reasons for optimism. One came from Rickey Paulding, who began to grow into an offensive force as he played off of Rush and Gilbert. Another was Gilbert himself, who made the move to the point without sacrificing his own explosiveness, evidenced by a win at Colorado, where he sank twelve three-pointers on his way to 40 points.
Still, the Tigers stood just 8-6 in Big 12 play when they hosted 12th-ranked Oklahoma State, needing a win to help secure an NCAA Tournament bid. They gave a breakthrough performance that showed how dangerous Missouri could be by trusting the full roster. On a night when Rush and Gilbert combined for just 16 points, a new generation of Detroit Tigers carried the team. Rickey Paulding scored 21 points, and Arthur Johnson added 18 points and 14 rebounds in a 72-69 triumph. "Our backs were against the wall," said Kareem Rush. "Guys stepped up."
The Tigers got a similar effort but a less favorable result when they hosted Kansas to close the regular season. The Jayhawks, ranked number one, prevailed 95-92, despite 27 points from Clarence Gilbert in his final home game. The loss dropped Missouri to 9-7 and sixth place in the Big 12. After a second round exit in the conference tournament, the Tigers snuck into the NCAA field as the number 12 seed in the West Region, a position that did not bode well for their chances. In NCAA history, 12-seeds had been good for the occasional first-round upset, but little else.
But Quin Snyder still had faith in his team. He had seen his players’ intensity rise – especially defensively – since they adjusted to Gilbert at the point. "This team can still be special," Snyder told his players before facing fifth-seeded Miami in round one. Then they went out and proved it. Mizzou raced to a 12-0 lead and never looked back. "We came out and jumped on ‘em," said Clarence Gilbert, whose 20 points led six Tigers in double figures in a 93-80 victory.
Missouri met fourth-seeded Ohio State in round two, and gave an even more impressive performance. The Tigers exploded to a 47-26 halftime lead and never let up, thanks largely to a ferocious effort on the boards. Rush, Paulding and Justin Gage (a football star who had walked on to the basketball team) each grabbed nine caroms, as Mizzou won the rebounding battle, 52-28. Paulding also threw down two tremendous dunks on his way to 20 points in an emphatic 83-67 triumph. Ohio State coach Jim O’Brien was stunned by Missouri’s play. "We kind of ran into a buzz saw," he said. Quin Snyder was far less surprised. "Today was a reflection of what’s happened over the last month," he said. "That identity starts on the defensive end. First we had the will, and now our habits are coming." With their first Sweet Sixteen appearance in eight years on the horizon, the Tigers’ timing was perfect.
In San Jose, Missouri met UCLA, and the game began badly when Clarence Gilbert dislocated his left ring finger in the first minute, but the Tigers recovered and led by two at halftime. Still, after UCLA opened the second half on a run, the Tigers trailed by eight points with fourteen minutes to play. But when Kareem Rush hit a three-pointer with 13:51 remaining, it began an avalanche. Mizzou used a 32-14 run to turn the deficit into a ten-point lead with just under four minutes to play. The Tigers won, 82-73, as Gilbert – who Justin Gage called "a maniac" after shaking off the dislocated finger – scored 23 points. Rush added 20, Rickey Paulding contributed 15, and Arthur Johnson collected 14 points and 14 rebounds. With the win, the Tigers became the first 12-seed ever to advance to the NCAA’s Elite Eight. One more victory would put Mizzou into its first Final Four, but to get there, the Tigers would have to pass their toughest test, against a familiar foe.
More than any other team, Oklahoma had become Missouri’s great nemesis, with eight straight wins over the Tigers. At 30-4 on the year, Kelvin Sampson’s Sooners had dominated opponents with high-pressure defense, relentless rebounding, and the stellar play of guard Hollis Price.
The Sooners took an eight-point lead to halftime. But Missouri rallied and cut the margin to three points with less than three minutes to play. The Tigers would get no closer. Despite 22 points from Paulding, Oklahoma won, 81-75, ending Mizzou’s miraculous run. The loss was particularly difficult for Clarence Gilbert, who, in his last game as a Tiger, made just one of 16 field goal attempts. Gilbert kept a stiff upper lip, but Quin Snyder felt for his senior captain. "It was painful to watch that happen to Clarence," Snyder said. "He wanted it so bad. He’s such a tough kid."
Still, the disappointment gave way to a sense of accomplishment. "I’m unbelievably proud of what this team became," said Snyder, who presided over the comeback from mid-season struggles. There was also a sense of momentum within the program. With Gilbert graduating, and Kareem Rush skipping his senior year for the riches of the NBA, Missouri lost two of its ten all-time leading scorers. But Arthur Johnson and Rickey Paulding, who had become stars in their own right, would return. And though they would often perform brilliantly, Johnson, Paulding and the rest of the Tigers were soon to experience some uniquely trying times.