Some last-second wins are a thrill. This one was a relief.
Norm Stewart pulled off his final recruiting coup when he convinced Fort Lauderdale natives Keyon Dooling and Clarence Gilbert to come to Mizzou in the 1998 signing class.
During their respective freshman seasons, the duo helped Mizzou to advance to its first NCAA Tournament in four years, but word was that they were both unhappy and pondering transfers before Stewart unexpectedly retired on April Fools Day 1999. Signed by a gruff Missourian in his 60s, they instead became early stalwarts for a blue-chip Dukie in his early 30s.
Quin Snyder made the NCAA Tournament in each of his first four years in charge at Mizzou before things began to go awry. His first team was absurdly guard-heavy, with Dooling, Gilbert, freshman Kareem Rush, and Brian Grawer attempting to bomb teams out of the Hearnes Center with 3-pointer after 3-pointer.
Snyder’s second team was a little bit more balanced. Dooling declared for the NBA Draft after his sophomore year, but Snyder brought a bit more balance to the squad by signing big Arthur Johnson out of Michigan. The squad was still rather young, but a lineup of Grawer, Gilbert, Rush, Johnson, and senior T.J. Soyoye began the season 12-3, peaking with a four-overtime win over Iowa State.
The classic ISU win, however, seemed to take the wind out of the Tigers’ sails. They dropped eight of their final 14 games of the regular season, then lost 67-65 to Oklahoma in a Big 12 Tournament classic. Once in position for a strong tourney seed, they were sent to Greensboro, the No. 9 seed in mighty Duke’s subregional.
There was an obvious draw here: If Mizzou could get past Georgia in the first round, the Tigers would face Snyder’s former boss and mentor, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
Easier said than done.
Actually, it started out impossibly easy. And then it became nearly impossible. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
They blew a 15-point lead early. They gave back an 11-point lead late. They bricked free throws. They took shots that landed in South Carolina. They threw passes into the bandstand. It was Missouri against Missouri.
Until the last fraction of a second, you didn't know whether their talent would outlast their inexperience, or be wasted on youthful indiscretions. You didn't know if they would lose to Georgia and go home crying or win and continue this educational field trip to a basketball museum on Tobacco Road.
Mizzou, a young team with a young coach, began the game with a 15-0 run, then gave it all back.
The Tigers trailed 33-32 in front of 18,932 in Greensboro, and a shaky 14-for-23 performance from the line (Rush and Gilbert were 1-for-4), combined with 15 turnovers, helped to blow a late lead as well.
But with the game tied at 68-68 in the waning seconds, Mizzou had the ball with a chance to somehow avoid overtime. And when Rush was double-teamed, he found Gilbert camped out in the corner. Again from the Post-Dispatch:
And then there was sophomore Kareem Rush, unable to squirm loose from two defenders. Late in the game at Greensboro Coliseum, he'd encountered a similar situation and forced an off-balance shot that wasn't close. This time, Rush looked for the open man in the right corner. And he saw Clarence Gilbert calling for the ball.
And then there was Gilbert, moving in a couple of steps to get a better shot instead of floating out there at 3-point distance, where the stakes are higher. Gilbert suppressed his big-time shooter's ego and played the percetnages. He went for the deuce. The ball sizzled through the net like a descending missile. [...]
And just like that, the Tigers were a little older, a little smarter, a little tougher.
The win afforded Mizzou a respectable loss. Against Duke in the next round, Rush and Gilbert went 9-for-16 from 3-point range and combined for 45 points (29 from Kareem), and the Tigers went blow-for-blow against the Blue Devils for much of the game. The eventual national champions pulled away late for a 94-81 win, followed by an emotional midcourt embrace between Snyder and Coach K. But the game set the bar high for the 2001-02 season.
That year, of course, followed an even more extreme roller coaster track. Mizzou began the season ranked eighth in the country, rose to second, nearly crashed all the way out of tourney contention, then went to the Elite Eight as a 12-seed.
Between the strong showing against Duke, the 2012 tourney run, and another near-run in 2013 (the Tigers lost in overtime in the second round to eventual Final Four team Marquette), Mizzou became a damn strong tourney team under Snyder. (His problems were derived outside of March.) But you could make the case that it might not have happened without the learning experience that was Mizzou-Georgia 2001.