Kim English slumped back in his locker, the bright camera lights illuminating his solemn face. His quad hurt, his dreams dashed.
“Many things (are) going through my mind right now,” he said quietly. “We had a really good opportunity to do something really special this year.”
English closed his eyes while he spoke, as if in a daze. Most of the Tigers felt the same Friday night following their historic 86-84 loss to 15th-seeded Norfolk State in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament.
He and his Missouri teammates had come so far. The Tigers were a fractured bunch at the end of last season, but led by an eight-man senior class, they transformed themselves into a national contender with their unselfishness and hustle.
They were not big and they were not deep, but they did play team basketball, as their 30-5 record and a Big 12 tournament title will attest. No Missouri basketball team won more regular-season games, and they truly believed a deep NCAA Tournament run was possible.
“I just really liked our chances,” English said. “We just didn’t play the game we should have.”
As Missouri coach Frank Haith told his players in the locker room, things don’t always go according to plan.
“Life deals you some blows,” Haith said. “And how you handle those trials determine how successful you’ll be.”
And the way his players handled what is arguably the program’s most devastating loss in years was silence. And shock. It was all too fresh.
“You never know when your last name is going to be,” senior center Steve Moore said. “Of course, nobody (was) expecting to lose the first game. Nobody.”
Norfolk State became the fifth No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 in the NCAA Tournament’s history. Hours later, Lehigh became the sixth by beating Duke. Adding to the enormity of MU’s upset loss is that teams from Norfolk’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference entered Friday 0-41 against the six major conferences this season.
But you wouldn’t have guessed by the way Norfolk State played, as the bigger Spartans shot 54.2 percent from the field.
Norfolk State, 26-9, didn’t start a player shorter than 6 feet 5 and it showed as the Spartans outrebounded Missouri 37-25 (including 14-7 offensively) and got clean looks on offense even when the Tigers thought they were contesting shots.
All of it started with Norfolk State’s 6-foot-10 senior center, Kyle O’Quinn, who finished with a game-high 26 points and 14 rebounds. His play in the first half against Missouri’s Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore was a big reason the score was tied 38-38 at halftime, which allowed the Spartans to gain confidence.
Haith warned his team then that it needed to be tougher and have more of a defensive mind-set, but the Tigers, who have mounted several second-half runs this season, weren’t worried.
“We just felt like it was a matter of time before we took the lead back and won the game,” said junior guard Michael Dixon, who scored a team-high 22 points.
The Tigers led on a handful of occasions, but neither team could pull away. Norfolk State shot 61.5 percent from the field in the second half and led 81-75 with a little more than two minutes left.
“If you let a team like that stay in the game,” sophomore guard Phil Pressey said, “anything can happen. They can just throw up shots they usually don’t shoot and they’ll go in.”
The Tigers rallied. Pressey hit a three-pointer, and Missouri trailed by just two after two missed free throws by Norfolk State gave the Tigers the ball with 2.9 seconds left. But Pressey’s desperation three-pointer missed this time, and the upset was complete.
The loss brings a bitter end to the careers of a senior class that won 107 games, the most in Missouri history. Senior guard Matt Pressey said he hoped this year’s team would be remembered as a group that didn’t give up, one that pulled together to post the program’s best season in years despite a preseason injury to its best post player, Laurence Bowers.
Moore urged people to remember the good things they did.
“This is a good team,” he said, “we’ve had a great year, a lot of success.
“It just (stinks) to go out like this.”
This became clear over the next 20 minutes as several players spoke quietly about what went wrong and how it felt.
A few lockers away, someone asked English, who finished with only two points and shot one for seven from the field, if he had come to the realization that he would never wear his Mizzou uniform again. He hadn’t.
“I guess this is the last time,” he said, solemnly.
Ten seconds passed, and English took a deep breath. He gathered his things and made the long, slow walk to the Tigers’ team bus, assistant coach Tim Fuller consoling him every step of the way.
English was hurting, and Haith, walking several feet behind, was hurting for him, and all the seniors.
“Let’s understand one thing — they have had a (heck) of a year, a great year,” Haith said. “They won 30 games, all-time winningest senior class in the history of Mizzou basketball we are disappointed we were not able to continue in this tournament, but I’m very proud of them.”