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.
We begin with the 1977-78 season which saw the Tigers capture their first – and least likely – conference postseason tournament championship.
It began plausibly enough. The Tigers fell to some good teams on the road and beat some bad teams at home. Then they traveled to face Florida State, and got crushed, 97-64. Things got worse when Kansas thrashed the Tigers, 96-49, to open the holiday tournament. But in a small sign of the absurdity to come, Missouri bounced back to win twice and take fifth place.
After those ups and downs, the Tigers found consistency. They consistently lost. Through January, they lost every time they hit the road and many of the times they stayed at home. The pattern continued into February. Mizzou jumped up and beat second-place Nebraska, but by then the team was just playing out the string. Decrying his team’s lack of confidence, Norm Stewart said "the way we’ve been playing is like missing an eight-foot putt by six feet."
The regular season finale showed the season in microcosm. After building a 16-point halftime lead at Hearnes, Missouri imploded, and Iowa State rallied to win, 67-63. For practical purposes, that should have been the end. An exit in the post-season tournament’s first game would put an end to the misery, as the seventh-seeded Tigers, who had not won on an opponent’s floor all year, traveled to Ames for a rematch with Iowa State.
Then things got weird, starting with an unlikely promise.
Stan Ray’s career had been star-crossed. As a freshman, his play foretold an almost certain stardom. The league’s rookie of the year, he nearly helped the Tigers into the Final Four. Then, with the world as his oyster, Ray lost his academic eligibility as a sophomore. His grades recovered in his junior year, but his game suffered, thanks to a broken hand suffered early in the season. While Larry Drew and Clay Johnson carried the team, Ray tried his best to contribute, but the cast on his hand might as well have been an anchor. Though he trudged through a tough year, Ray showed some surprising swagger as post-season approached. Before the conference tournament, Ray slid a note under his coach’s door. "I know you don’t have any confidence in me," it read, "but I’m going to prove everybody wrong and take this team to the NCAA Tournament."
The game at Ames followed a familiar pattern. Mizzou built a double-digit halftime lead, only to watch it vanish. But this time, the Tigers stiffened. With the scored tied at 63-63, with less than a minute to play, and with the ball in Larry Drew’s hands, Missouri played for one shot. As time ticked away, Drew found Clay Johnson on the baseline. The high-flying senior elevated and drilled a jump shot. By the time Johnson’s feet hit the floor, the Tigers were in the second round.
Ray didn’t look particularly prophetic yet, not with two games to go. But he began to seem positively prescient when Missouri met Nebraska in the semifinals. With the Tigers down by three points in the last two minutes, Ray took over. He stole a pass and sprinted the length of the court to cut the lead to one point, and then scored again to put the Tigers on top. When the final buzzer sounded, Missouri owned a 61-58 win and a spot in the final.
There they met Kansas State, and the story turned stranger than fiction in a game that went to overtime. The score remained tied with 1:36 left in the extra period, when Ray sank two free throws. Thirteen seconds later, he hit two more. Then, with 44 seconds left, he made another pair to give Missouri a three-point edge. The Tigers won, 71-68, and Ray, who recorded 17 points and 13 rebounds, was named tournament MVP. Missouri’s sleeping giant, fully awakened, made good on his pledge and put his team in the NCAA field.
The inclusion of Missouri, with its 14-15 record, was anathema to those who deplored the rise of post-season conference tournaments, like the Chicago Sun-Times columnist who wrote "Missouri’s presence in the tournament stands as an embarrassing tribute to college basketball’s latest folly."
Despite their critics, the Tigers played like they belonged. Round one pitted them against 15th-ranked Utah, and the Tigers led, 63-55, with just over six minutes to play, before the Utes rallied to force overtime. Clay Johnson, Larry Drew and Brad Droy each scored in the extra period, but Utah matched Mizzou shot for shot. Sadly, Missouri’s luck ran out in the second overtime. Utah’s Buster Matheney scored 10 quick points, and the Tigers tumbled, 86-79. Clay Johnson, in his final game at Mizzou, scored 30. Stan Ray snatched 12 boards, but managed just four points. Alas, he had not promised a national championship.