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Mizzou's Greatest, #50-49: 1994 Missouri and the shot that went in

Every once in a great while, instead of Tyus Edney's shot going in, Eric Piatkowski's shot rims out, and we let out a loud noise because in that moment we are victorious and invincible.

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The Savitar

The shot went in. That's all I can tell you. I know because I saw it from my perch high in the Hearnes Center. Eric Piatkowski ran down the ball and then turned and hurled it toward the hoop from thirty-five feet away as the buzzer sounded. He hurled it, and it went in, and we stood there, stunned. This was before Tyus Edney, before the kicked ball, after the fifth down, another plot-point in our sad story of serial indignities. We had all come to see history that day, but we just felt sick.

In a small fraction of a second we felt grief, disbelief and rage. And just before we got to acceptance, the ball popped out. Maybe a physicist could explain it. Maybe only a shaman could. The ball went in, it broke our hearts, the ball popped out, our hearts were healed.

And then we let out the loudest noise I've ever heard.

We let out a loud noise because the ball popped out and our team completed an undefeated conference season. "That's all?" you say. "What more could you want?" I reply. We spend countless hours and dollars chasing moments like that one. More often than not, we encounter Norfolk State or Northern Iowa, but every once in a great while, instead of Tyus Edney's shot going in, Eric Piatkowski's shot rims out, and we let out a loud noise because in that moment we are victorious and invincible. And then we hold on to that moment for as long as we can.

Hold on, friends. Here's the full story of the 1993-94 Tigers from True Sons, A Century of Missouri Tigers Basketball.

On the heels of a disappointing season redeemed only by a surprising run through the conference tournament, the Tigers began the year like a team hell-bent for last place. No one could have known that they would become one of the most accomplished teams in Missouri’s modern history.

Mizzou opened against Central Missouri State, a Division II opponent, and the only bright spot was Kelly Thames, a freshman from Jennings High in St. Louis, who debuted with 19 points and 12 rebounds. A game that should have been a laugher was a nail-biter to the end, and Missouri escaped with a 69-66 win, but that was nothing compared to what came next.

The Tigers traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where they had won five straight times, but the setting they encountered was brand new. Mizzou faced the second-ranked Razorbacks in the dedication game for palatial Bud Walton Arena. With thousands in attendance, a national audience watching on ESPN, and the emotion of the occasion on their side, the Hogs gave Missouri an unprecedented beating. Arkansas was famous for its "Forty Minutes of Hell" defense, but the soul-scorching torture seemed to last much, much longer. With frenzied, turnover-producing pressure, and lights-out three-point shooting, Arkansas poured it on from the opening bell to the final buzzer. The score was 45-22 at halftime and it kept getting worse. Scotty Thurman led seven Razorbacks in double figures, and Arkansas thundered to a 120-68 victory. Melvin Booker cringed at the realization that his family had watched on television. "I’m scared to call home and talk to my parents," he said.

The Tigers tried to put the night behind them, and though they won four straight games at home, they hardly covered themselves in glory, scrambling to beat the likes of Jackson State and Coppin State. When the Tigers traveled to St. Louis for the annual skirmish with Illinois, they may have been the least impressive 5-1 team in history. But history was about to take a stunning turn.

It didn’t shape up as much of a contest, the struggling Tigers against the nationally-ranked Illini in the final Braggin’ Rights meeting at the old St. Louis Arena. But midway through the second half, the Tigers held a 61-48 edge. Then things got interesting. An Illinois rally, keyed by guards Richard Keene and Kiwane Garris, nearly finished the Tigers off, as Jevon Crudup fouled out. With less than a minute to play, the Illini led, 75-68. Then came the first in a series of miracles. Mark Atkins and Melvin Booker each hit shots to narrow the gap, and Lamont Frazier sank a three-pointer with four seconds left to tie the score at 79-79. Frazier later called the shot "an out-of-body experience."

In overtime, Atkins and Marlo Finner joined Crudup on the bench with five fouls apiece, and with 43 seconds to play, the Tigers trailed by five. But late baskets by Kelly Thames helped forge an 88-88 tie and force a second overtime, where the game became the stuff of legend.

The Tigers didn’t need another miraculous comeback, but they did need another miracle. With the score tied at 97-97 and the clock ticking down, Kiwane Garris drove to the basket. As time expired, the officials called a foul on Mizzou’s Julian Winfield, his fifth. With no time left, Garris went to the line to shoot two, needing only one to give Illinois the win. "The only guy who didn’t think the game was over was Coach Stewart," Lamont Frazier later said of the man who stood at midcourt berating the refs as Garris took the ball.

Garris, a freshman, had been sensational – he scored 31 points in the game – but he had never been in such a spot. He stepped to the line, the lane vacant, the other players reduced to spectators. Garris entered the game shooting 94% from the line, but as he stood there, nerves shot and legs spent, the basket might as well have been fifty feet away. He focused on the hoop. He breathed in and out. He put up his first shot. It hit the rim and bounced away. There were shrieks, moans, cheers. And then all of the air was sucked out of the building as Garris prepared to shoot again, feeling pressure like never before. He squared up and released. But after so much fight, the radar was gone. The ball bounced away harmlessly. On to a third overtime.

With four Tigers already fouled out, Missouri turned to Jason Sutherland and Derek Grimm, freshmen who had barely played to date. Inexperienced but fearless, Sutherland opened the third overtime with a three-pointer, and the Tigers never looked back. Melvin Booker – who finished with 21 points and a school-record 13 assists – fouled out after playing 52 minutes, replaced by Reggie Smith, forced into action after missing three weeks with a badly sprained ankle. But it was another senior, Lamont Frazier, who finally put the game away. He hit a series of free throws in the final five minutes, including two with 3.8 seconds to play to give Missouri a four-point edge. A three-pointer by Garris at the buzzer made no difference. Missouri won, 108-107, and the Tiger players milled about in a euphoric mix of jubilation and exhaustion. Norm Stewart, as tired as his team, was just glad the game didn’t last any longer. "We had the wounded in there," said the coach. "I guess the women and children would have been next."

One game changed an entire season. It inspired confidence by showing that every man on the roster could be counted on, and it proved what was possible through sheer tenacity. Frazier, who finished with 20 points, says simply "it was always there. Illinois just brought it out."

The awakening was immediate. Over the next two weeks, the Tigers beat a series of non-conference opponents by lopsided scores, and blistered Kansas State by 20 in the league opener. They also got a boost between semesters when a new player emerged from the mist. Paul O’Liney, a broad-shouldered scorer, had led his team to the junior college national championship the year before. He famously remarked that he had watched the debacle at Arkansas, and figured he could help. O’Liney walked on to the team and became Missouri’s sixth man, providing instant offense off the bench.

Though Mizzou produced a lackluster effort in a four-point loss at Notre Dame, the Tigers quickly regrouped and turned their attention toward dominating the Big Eight. Missouri slowly built up steam. Some nights, the Tigers overwhelmed opponents. They beat Iowa State by 23 in Columbia, and Nebraska by 16 in Lincoln, and they used a second half spurt to run away from third-ranked Kansas at the Hearnes Center. But on other nights, they employed a rare resourcefulness to pull out impossible wins. It was a trait borne of experience. Not only did the team have eight seniors – Booker, Crudup, Frazier, Heller, Smith, Atkins and reserves Jed Frost and Derek Dunham – it was battle-tested. The Tigers’ resiliency was displayed most vividly against Illinois, and assistant coach Kim Anderson says that the struggles the team endured the previous season paid dividends. In the process of losing a succession of heartbreakers, the Tigers learned how small the difference between victory and defeat can be. Having seen every little thing go wrong, the Tigers were determined to make every small detail go right.

The first example came at Oklahoma State, where Mizzou trailed by 15 in the second half. Jevon Crudup and massive Bryant Reeves pummeled one another in the post, but Crudup never wore down. While Mark Atkins and Paul O’Liney used fresh legs to give Missouri energy, Crudup led a surge with offensive rebounds and point-blank scores. In the end, the Tigers won, 73-68, completing a 20-point turnaround.

At Oklahoma, Mizzou scored on its last 10 possessions to turn an 89-89 tie into a 104-94 win, as Crudup recorded 25 points and 15 rebounds. Sooner coach Billy Tubbs, incredulous after watching the newest Tiger score 20 points off the bench, sarcastically called O’Liney "a nice walk-on." Even when they played poorly, the Tigers proved resilient. Kelly Thames posted 24 points and 12 rebounds in a 79-72 overtime victory at Iowa State that moved Missouri to 10-0 in the league. Melvin Booker admitted "we were flat," and Norm Stewart said "I don’t think we had it together tonight, but somehow we found a way to win."

By the time of that victory, whispers about a perfect 14-0 record in conference play had grown to a low roar. The feat had been accomplished only twice in Big Eight history (by Kansas State in 1959, and Kansas in 1971). For any Missouri team, the season’s biggest test is the trip to Lawrence, and that’s the obstacle the Tigers faced as they tried to move to 11-0.

Throughout the year, Melvin Booker had been Missouri’s best player. At Kansas, he made a case for being the best in the league. Mizzou trailed by eight points with less than nine minutes to play when Booker took over. He scored 10 points in a 90-second span to bring MU even with the fourth-ranked Jayhawks. Then he kept scoring. Seventeen of Booker’s 32 points came down the stretch of an 81-74 win that clinched at least a share of the conference title. After the game, Norm Stewart focused on the total team effort. "We dug ourselves a hole, and everyone had a part in getting us out," he said. But Kansas coach Roy Williams praised the kid from Moss Point, Mississippi who had come to Missouri as an unheralded recruit less than four years earlier. "Melvin Booker was sensational," Williams said. "All those recruiting experts, it shows how much those guys know."

The Tigers clinched the title outright at home with a win over Oklahoma, as O’Liney and Atkins combined for 46 points. But the team, which had taken on a cold, businesslike demeanor, did not celebrate. "Coach said no net-cutting," Booker remarked. "It shows how serious coach is about it, how bad he wants it. Ain’t no celebration going on here until we get to the NCAA." A week later, the Tigers beat Kansas State to move to 13-0 in the league, and Norm Stewart finally joined in the talk about a perfect record. "I want the players to have that," he said.

Missouri’s last regular season contest was among the most highly anticipated games in Hearnes history. The Tigers hosted a surging Nebraska team, winners of three straight, including two over ranked opponents. The Huskers featured the long-range marksmanship of Eric Piatkowski, one of the league’s top players.

Before a rambunctious overflow crowd, the Tigers played with their characteristic intensity, but without their typical offensive efficiency. The score was close throughout, but when Nebraska opened up a three-point lead with one minute to play, Missouri drew on the resourcefulness that had sustained the team throughout the season.

Melvin Booker closed the gap to 78-77 with a jump shot. Then Piatkowski missed a baseline jumper with half a minute to play. Kelly Thames broke from the pack with the ball and had a clear path to the bucket until Piatkowski caught him and committed an intentional foul, giving Mizzou two free throws and the ball.

Thames, a 73% foul shooter, had a chance to give Missouri the lead. But he missed both shots, and the Tigers had the ball, down by one, with 26 seconds left. With 17 seconds on the clock, Melvin Booker launched a leaner from the wing. As the shot caromed in, Booker crashed into Nebraska’s Erick Strickland. One official called a block on Strickland, while another pointed to Booker for charging. The refs caucused and then compromised, rendering a decision that made little sense. They tagged both Booker and Strickland with fouls, waved the basket off, and gave the ball to Missouri thanks to the possession arrow.

Mizzou again got the ball to Booker, who flashed into the lane and knocked down another jump shot with 12 seconds remaining. Fouled on the play, Booker hit the free throw to give Missouri an 80-78 lead.

The Tigers stood 12 seconds from perfection, seeming to need only one defensive stop, but, in fact, needing one last miracle. With a deafening din inside Hearnes, Missouri’s defense smothered the Huskers. As the clock ticked toward zero, the ball was forced way outside to Eric Piatkowski, who already had scored 26. He squared and fired a three-point try from nearly 30 feet away. The ball traveled a perfect arc, right at the hoop, as the final buzzer sounded. It entered the rim, and for an instant, Nebraska had crushed the dream of the perfect season. More than 13,000 people gasped in unison. Then, inexplicably, impossibly, the ball popped out of the basket and fell to the floor. A momentary hush preceded delirium, as the crowd exploded and players embraced. The finish seemed to provide evidence of a higher power. "Somebody tipped it out. I don’t know who. But I want to thank him," said Melvin Booker, who had erased any doubt about the identity of the league’s player of the year. "I thought it was fate," says Kim Anderson. And at a moment when most simply felt relief, Norm Stewart beamed. "I’m really proud of this group," he said. "This is a special team."

Three months after losing a game by 52 points, Missouri stood 24-2 on the year, 14-0 in the league, conference champions, the nation’s third-ranked team. Unshakeable, unsinkable, nearly unbeatable, the Missouri Tigers achieved the impossible with a modicum of talent and monstrous amount of grit. They took on their coach’s personality – stubborn, resilient, never giving a thought to losing – and became the very picture of mental toughness and competitive fire.

After the regular season achievement, with a high seed in the NCAA’s assured, the Big Eight Tournament felt a bit anticlimactic, a feeling reflected in Missouri’s play. In the opening round, the Tigers escaped with a 64-62 win over lowly Colorado, and in the semifinal, Nebraska got its revenge. The 98-91 loss ended Missouri’s epic winning streak, but the Tigers were unfazed as they set their sights on the NCAA Tournament. "I’d rather lose before I go into the big dance," said Booker. "You lose here, and then you get back down to earth."

Rewarded with a number one seed for the first time ever, the Tigers were shipped to the West Region, where they opened play in Ogden, Utah against Navy. In the first half, the Tigers’ sluggish play continued, and they trailed the Midshipmen much of the way. With just under six minutes to go before the break, Norm Stewart replaced his starters with reserves from the far end of the bench. The move shook the Tigers back to life. Jevon Crudup tallied 19 points and 12 rebounds as Missouri regained its edge in a 76-53 win.

Mizzou maintained its edge in the second round against Wisconsin, which featured the inside-outside combination of Rashard Griffith and Michael Finley. But Griffith languished in foul trouble, thanks in part to Tiger reserve Marlo Finner, who scored 13 in the first half, and Missouri put on an explosive offensive show. The Tigers shot 68% from the floor and blew past the Badgers. Melvin Booker hit 11 of 14 field goal attempts, plus all seven of his free throws to finish with 35 points. Missouri led by as many as 20 points in the second half before easing to a 109-96 victory. "We’re back to ourselves," said Booker.

Back to themselves, and back to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in five years, Missouri met fourth-seeded Syracuse. On a Thursday night in Los Angeles, Missouri looked like a number one seed for 35 minutes, leading by 11 points with five minutes to go, but a Herculean effort by Syracuse’s Adrian Autry – he scored 31 points, all after halftime – forced overtime. That’s when the Tigers made another typical stand. Booker opened the extra period with a three-pointer, and Frazier finished off the Orangemen with a long pass to O’Liney for an easy bucket. Missouri’s 98-88 win put the Tigers in a regional final for the first time since 1976, on the precipice of their first Final Four ever.

Sadly, it was not to be. Against second-seeded Arizona and its powerhouse backcourt of Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves, Missouri had its worst day since the trip to Fayetteville. The Tigers struggled from the field and flailed fruitlessly from three-point range, making just seven of 33 treys. The 92-72 loss awoke the Tigers from a long dream of a season, and ended the careers of the seniors who dominated Missouri’s roster. Melvin Booker spoke for the entire senior class when he expressed their disappointment at missing the Final Four, and his words spoke volumes about their character. "We came here on probation. We were trying to do it for everybody, the state of Missouri, the University," he said. "That would have been a great thing. First time in school history. But we came up a little short."

In truth, the Tigers came up huge, greater than anyone could have imagined. Booker and his overachieving colleagues became a team for all time, a source of pride for Mizzou fans everywhere, and a tribute to the coach who guided the team out of probation and back to national prominence.