It wasn’t a dream.
Kim Anderson might need to pinch himself and Missouri basketball fans can be forgiven if there’s a touch of disbelief, but Wednesday’s overtime win against Auburn in the opening round of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena really happened.
“It’s March, baby,” sophomore guard Terrence Phillips said. “You see these games last year and as a kid, these game-winners, and you just want to be a part of that. … I felt like we were due one. There’s so many games we were so close and right there.”
Truth be told, it was almost too perfect not to happen.
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Anderson is a Mizzou lifer.
He grew up Sedalia, Mo., and played for Norm Stewart in the mid-1970s, earning Big Eight Player of the Year honors as a senior in 1977.
Anderson worked two stints on Stewart’s staff and always considered coaching the Tigers his dream job.
When the long-deferred ambition was realized in April 2014, Anderson inherited a sinking ship and, despite bailing out buckets of water, wasn’t able to salvage it in three seasons.
First-year athletic director Jim Sterk announced Sunday that Anderson wouldn’t return next season, making the 86-83 upset against Auburn a wonderful moment in an otherwise gloomy week for a “True Son” who bleeds black and gold and wants Mizzou basketball to thrive as much or more than anyone in program history.
Even more incredible, it happened on the same day Tigers special assistant coach Brad Loos’ daughter Rhyan, whose 18-month battle with cancer has rallied the team and MU athletic community, celebrated her seventh birthday.
As sophomore forward Kevin Puryear’s game-winning three-pointer as time expired fell through the net, Anderson scarcely moved.
He remained statuesque with his arms folded across his midsection until Loos — who has been on the bench for all 15 seasons Anderson’s served as a head coach, including 12 at Central Missouri before returning to his alma mater — leapt from the bench and gave him a bear hug from behind.
Assistant coach Steve Shields quickly joined the celebration as Anderson’s eyes lit up and a smile beamed across his face.
“Today, we all banded together and united,” Puryear said. “These are my brothers. I spend almost every day with them, and I love them more than anything. I love Coach A more than anything and our whole staff. We just fought for each other.”
Puryear made five three-pointers in the entire month of January and again during February. He went 5 of 9 from long range — career-highs for three-point makes and attempts — as part of a career-high 30-point outburst during the win against Auburn.
Sophomore guard Cullen VanLeer went 5 of 7 from three-point range, including a critical bomb with 16.8 seconds left in regulation that set up Frankie Hughes’ game-tying shot 15 seconds later, helping pace the Tigers to a season-high 16 total three-pointers.
“Our confidence and poise never wavered in this game …,” Puryear said. “Down the stretch of the season, we’ve had games where those types of shots haven’t fallen in. Today, all of our hard work in the gym paid off.”
None, of course, were bigger than Puryear’s game-winner, which is arguably the biggest shot of his life since he can’t really remember another bucket so clutch in his career.
“I can’t even tell you,” Puryear said. “Fourth grade, maybe?”
It all adds up to another game for Anderson and No. 14 seed Mizzou (8-23), which advanced to a second-round matchup at 8:30 p.m. Thursday against No. 6 seed Mississippi (19-12).
“Happy to be playing another day, happy to have another day to be the coach of Mizzou,” Anderson said.
The Rebels won 75-71 on Jan. 21 at Mizzou Arena and 80-77 on Feb. 25 in Oxford, Miss., close enough results to think there’s no reason the Tigers can’t pull off another stunner.