COMMENTARY

Sam Mellinger | Historic upset brings highs, lows that will linger for years

Updated: 2012-03-17T03:26:27Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

— The tears started almost immediately, beaten only by the cussing. Missouri basketball players range from stunned to ticked, staring into the distance or slamming punches into chairs, fresh victims of one the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.

Maybe 30 feet away from them, pandemonium. Norfolk State, 21-point underdogs, sprinting around in circles around midcourt, hamming it up for the TV cameras, making sure everyone watching remembers the fifth team in 28 years to win an NCAA Tournament game as a No. 15 seed.

Phil Pressey, who took the final shot in Missouri’s 86-84 loss, falls to the court. He doesn’t get up, doesn’t move, hides his head under his jersey until Kyle O’Quinn — now Missouri’s version of Ali Farokhmanesh, with 26 points and 14 rebounds for Norfolk State — offers a hug.

“He looked like he needed a helping hand,” O’Quinn later said.

This isn’t how it was supposed to happen. This isn’t the way dream seasons end, one of the most successful years in MU basketball history suddenly washed away in disappointment.

Someday, maybe people will remember these players for 30 wins and the Big 12 tournament championship and the way they bonded and played beautiful basketball for the coach none of them chose and who hardly any fans wanted.

That’s someday. For now, they are the unfortunate placeholders in the cruel side of what makes this tournament so beloved. They are the giant that lost to the little guy, the confident bunch with a seven-figure coach that got beat by a school most people couldn’t place on a map and that lost to a Division II school at home this season.

This season was so much fun for Missouri. The Tigers had most everything people say is needed in the tournament: five seniors, terrific guards, great leadership. That it ended in a choke just makes it that much harder.

“The whole game, man,” senior Matt Pressey says. “They had momentum pretty much the whole game. Even though we were up sometimes, it felt like they still had the momentum because we couldn’t pull way.

“I don’t really know what it was.”


NCAA Tournament losses are forever. Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe it’s not rational for a nation of sports fans to love an event in large part because of its unpredictability and then put so much emphasis on the final game of an otherwise fantastic season.

But this is the world we live in, and it is now a painful one for Mizzou.

There is no solace in Duke also losing to a 15th seed. How could there be? It’s been 11 years to the day since a No. 15 seed won. That was Jamaal Tinsley’s Iowa State team that won the Big 12 and then lost to Hampton. Larry Eustachy was fired two years later — a combination of alcoholism and not enough wins — and only this season got back to the tournament with Southern Miss.

Mizzou now knows a rare brand of failure, also brothers in arms with South Carolina in 1997, Arizona in 1993, and Syracuse in 1991.

This can be program-altering stuff. Syracuse came back and won a tournament game the next year, and Arizona followed its flop with a Final Four appearance. Duke’s place is secure. Iowa State didn’t win another NCAA Tournament game for four years. South Carolina still hasn’t.

Major college sports can be an unforgiving place. MU coach Frank Haith won over so many fans this year with a steady style, turning a dysfunctional and selfish group that lost eight of its last 14 games last year into the most efficient offensive team in the country — No. 3 in the final regular-season poll.

Now, he has a new label. He still hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game, and when he gets another chance he’ll have to answer the questions. He’ll say the right things, of course, that the past is the past and he’s learned from the disappointment but it would only be human for him to take a while to recover.

It would only be coach of him if, in some ways, he never fully recovers.

This is a new feeling for MU. Twelve tournament appearances over 22 years have come and gone since the last time Mizzou lost to a team seeded more than one spot lower. That’s all changed now.

One of the best teams in program history, the group that unwittingly began to carry the political flag of the realignment decisions made by the adults in charge, the players who helped drag MU from the frustration of last year to the joy of this season now face the unforgiving realization that their story ends in raw disappointment.


Kim English is slumped against the back of a steel locker. Gold-plated headphones sit still to his left. The senior stares straight ahead at nothing in particular, his voice hardly above a whisper, his Mizzou jersey still wet, his college basketball career over.

“I bled, I sweat, I cried for these six letters on the front of my jersey every night,” he says. “I came here with aspirations of taking this basketball program from the dumps and trying to take it somewhere our fans couldn’t fathom. We tried. We fought. We fought for four years, and to lose, to lose in the first round, man. It just hurts.”

Outside this room, strangers celebrate. A Norfolk State administrator stands in the hallway, waving reporters into his team’s locker room, telling them, “We’ve been expecting you!” An assistant coach screams to anyone who’ll listen, “Do you know who Norfolk is!?!?”

Inside this room, English and his teammates work through the reciprocal pain. Laurence Bowers sits alone in a suit. Michael Dixon waits as long as he can to take his uniform off. Steve Moore grabs a plastic chair and tries to make sense of it all.

“We still had a chance,” one player says.

“Then it was too late,” another responds.

“Mental errors,” says a third.

English doesn’t hear any of that. No matter. He’s probably thinking a lot of the same things, and besides, he now has a lot of time to work through it all. The finality of this tournament is always a surprise, no matter how you prepare for it.

In the minutes immediately following the worst loss most of these players have ever experienced, people asked the guys how they’ll remember this season. It is an impossible question to answer in that moment, of course, but the truth is probably somewhere between two responses.

“Just how much fun we had and how together we were,” Dixon says.

“I don’t care,” English says. “We lost.”

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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