Let’s start by setting the mood.
We’ve written a lot about the 2008-09 basketball season — hell, we existed for it, therefore of course we wrote a lot about it. It was by far one of the most emotionally rewarding seasons in the history of Missouri athletics. It was wonderful.
There were almost too many high points to count.
There was the momentum-turning win at Oklahoma State. The home shellacking of Baylor. Zaire Taylor's first clutch moment at Texas. Zaire Taylor's second clutch moment against Kansas. The Big 12 Tournament title. Kim English's free throws against Marquette. The pummeling of an awesome Memphis team (and Marcus Denmon's shot) to reach the Elite Eight.
Among those high points, some get forgotten. Though we didn't realize what we had early on — and a 16-point Braggin' Rights loss to Illinois and a road loss to Nebraska helped to throw us off the scent — Mizzou beat a pretty good Cal team by 27 at home. The Tigers beat Kansas State by 20 at home. And on Senior Night against an awesome Oklahoma team, they traded heavyweight blows and won.
This game didn't feature a dramatic ending or any single, memorable play. In fact, the most memorable moment happened in the pre-game Senior Night ceremony, where Demarre Carroll bawled his eyes out. Still, this was a wonderful slugfest.
Oklahoma came to town 26-3 overall and would go on to reach the Elight Eight along with Mizzou. Blake Griffin was unimaginably good (he averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds per game), and his supporting cast was rock solid: Blake's brother Taylor in the post, Austin Johnson at point, Willie Warren and Tony Crocker on the wings.
The Tigers got the Sooners on the mat and simply wouldn't let them up. OU's only lead came at 2-0. Mizzou went on a 13-3 and simply answered OU's every move from then on out. The Sooners cut the lead to 13-10 and continued to look for a way back, but back-to-back 3s by Justin Safford made it 20-11, and OU would never again get within less than 5.
The box score is a work of art. Everybody contributed. Safford made two 3s in seven minutes. Laurence Bowers grabbed two rebounds and dished an assist in three minutes. Keith Ramsey logged an assist and a block in nine minutes. Marcus Denmon hit two 3s. Michael Anderson Jr. got the start on senior night, and Mizzou was +8 with him on the court. Zaire Taylor and J.T. Tiller made seven of nine free throws. Leo Lyons scored 15 points, often one-on-one against Griffin. And Carroll posted 15 and 10.
The four seniors on this team have been through a ridiculous number of highs and lows. Two of them—Matt Lawrence and Leo Lyons—were part of Quin Snyder's last recruiting class and have experienced MAJOR ups and downs in terms of production level and (in Lyons' case) engagement with the team. But they've been two of the more unique and enigmatic players Mizzou has had in a long, long time, and it's absolutely thrilling that they can end their careers in the NCAA Tournament.
DeMarre Carroll, on the other hand, wasn't a Quin guy. He was in Mike Anderson's blood. He came to Mizzou because of his uncle, but anybody who saw him failing to hold it together during the Senior Night ceremonies knows how much this place means to him now. In just one season, we've gone from complaining/worrying about dreadful attendance to selling out (or almost selling out) every game. And considering DeMarre has been the face and personality of this program this year (or the valedictorian, as Mitch Holtus referred to him last night), that has to mean more to him than anybody else.
It’s incredible to think back on how quickly sentiment can change.
We certainly witnessed the change in one direction, as Mizzou went from NCAA Tournament 2-seed in 2012 to 9-23 in 2015. But the shift happened in the other direction at the turn of the decade. Mizzou went 12-16 in Quin Snyder's last season and stumbled to a 16-16 finish in 2008 after Athenagate.
When 2008-09 began, Mizzou was on a five-year streak without an NCAA Tournament bid. We thought the team could be pretty good, but it took a leap of faith.
When such leaps are rewarded, there is nothing better. It's why we keep taking such leaps, even when we go years between rewards.