The Missouri Tigers were convinced it was only a matter of time.
Norfolk State refused to go away Friday, even leading at various points of the second half. But for most of the game, the Tigers didn’t seem to panic. History was on their side.
Never before had a 30-win team (like Missouri) ever lost its first game of the NCAA Tournament. A 15th-seeded team (like Norfolk State) hadn’t won since 2001.
“I never thought at all during the game we were going to lose,” said junior guard Michael Dixon, “until it was over.”
But if the Tigers never truly entertained the notion of losing, they were at least worried with two minutes, 17 seconds remaining in the second half, when Norfolk State led 81-75.
Then, finally, a run. A pair of free throws by Marcus Denmon, who scored 20 points, and a jumper by Dixon cut the deficit to 81-79 with 1:26 left.
After a Norfolk State turnover, Denmon tied the score with two free throws and less than a minute left. Just like that, the Tigers appeared poised to win this one, just like they had so many times in the second halves of games this season.
The chances of this appeared to skyrocket just moments later, when Norfolk State guard Chris McEachin, who had 20 points, shot an airball.
Then, disaster struck. Norfolk State senior Kyle O’Quinn snared the ball, put it back up for a go-ahead basket and was fouled by MU senior guard Matt Pressey. O’Quinn made the free throw and the Spartans led by three with 34 seconds left.
After a timeout, the Tigers followed with a bad possession, as Denmon forced a three. O’Quinn split a pair of free throws with 16 seconds left that put the Spartans ahead 85-81.
Missouri guard Phil Pressey (20 points) sped down the court and drilled a three, and after a Missouri foul, Rodney McCauley split a pair of free throws. The second free throw bounced off the rim, but the Spartans retained possession when they were awarded a jump ball.
“On a free-throw block-out we don’t step to the defender,” Haith said, “and they come over us and get it and it was jump ball.”
O’Quinn was fouled, but he gave Missouri a chance to tie or win it when he missed both free throws that gave the Tigers the ball down 86-84 with 2.9 seconds left.
Missouri designed a play to get the ball to Denmon, their most reliable clutch shooter. But he was covered, and Phil Pressey missed a desperation three from the wing as time ran out.
“I got the best look I could possibly get,” Pressey said. “I just missed the shot.”