Tigers Shocked By 15th Seeded Norfolk State


As the 2nd seeded Missouri Tigers took to the court in Omaha, Nebraska Friday afternoon, all signs indicated that their matchup against the 15th seeded Spartans of Norfolk State would result in a relatively easy ride. After winning the Big 12 Conference Tournament in Kansas City last weekend, Tiger fans felt snubbed by the NCAA selection committee when the brackets were released; not only did Mizzou not receive a number 1 seed, like many felt they deserved, they didn’t even receive the luxury of possibly playing regional round games in St. Louis. With the selection committee giving Kansas the slot in that region over the Tigers, it was immediately apparent that the Tigers felt unappreciated once again, and were more determined than ever to prove their doubters wrong.

As the week progressed, and as March Madness “experts” consumed the airwaves, Mizzou quickly became a popular Final 4 pick for many around the country. Those who did not follow the Tigers all season long felt as though Frank Haith’s squad was one of the most dangerous teams in the country, provided it matched up well against its opponent. And with a bracket that would likely pit the Tigers against matchup-friendly teams like Florida, Marquette, and Michigan State, it was easy to see why so many had confidence in the Tigers.

But in all the hoopla and hype surrounding the Tigers quest to a spot in New Orleans, very rarely was there a mention of the Norfolk State Spartans, a tiny school out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference that had never beaten a top 25 team in 10 tries, and was making its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. Even the most cynical Tiger fans had any doubts about this contest, as Mizzou proved time and time again that it could beat any opponent with any style of play at any location, any time, and under any circumstances. Certainly, a team loaded with senior leadership and supported by others with experience in big games wouldn’t become the first 2 seed to fall to a 15 seed in 11 years, would they?

Like many NCAA tournament games featuring David and Goliath type teams, the Spartans came out with nothing to lose, fearlessly running with the more-athletic Tigers and attacking the basket. In response to the early flurry from Norfolk State, Mizzou looked befuddled at the Spartan’s intensity, and looked to be the team that was a step slow. While the Tigers’ offense showed its customary smart ball movement and good shot selection, its usually intense defensive pressure was nowhere to be found. It seemed obvious that the Tigers doubted the Spartan’s ability to hit outside shots, and Norfolk State made Mizzou pay. As the teams headed into the locker room tied at 38, there were no signs of panic from the Tigers and their fans; with a couple of halftime adjustments, the Tigers would most certainly lock down the Spartan’s offense, and run away with a comfortable victory, just like most all other 2 seeds before them.

While the Tigers didn’t begin the second half with a quick surge of scoring, they were clearly a bit quicker, and finally looked ready to take charge of the game. At the under 12 minute tv timeout, the Tigers were already in the double bonus, and even though the Spartans were hitting everything from everywhere, their margin for error was getting razor thin as they crept into foul trouble.

But as the game progressed later into the second half, the Spartans continued to trade blows with the Tigers, and when Chris McEachin drained a three to put Norfolk State up 4 with 3:40 to go, which prompted a Mizzou timeout, it became apparent that the possibility of a massive upset was present, and everyone either in Omaha or watching around the country knew it. And by the time Kyle O’Quinn nailed two free throws to put the Spartans up 81-75 with 2:17 to go, every viewer not directly behind the Tigers’ bench or watching in Columbia was fully on the Spartans bandwagon.

Over the years in the NCAA, however, the much superior team has almost always found a way to step up in crunch time, sink their opponent, and move on to the next round. The Mizzou defense became more tenacious than ever, and when Michael Dixon forced a steal and drew two free throws to tie the game at 81, it felt as though the Tigers were finally about to get over the hump and end the Spartan’s journey. But in the final possessions of the game, the biggest weakness of the Tigers was put on full display for all of the country to see. First, three Tiger defenders couldn’t prevent O’Quinn from rebounding an air ball and getting a three point play to put Norfolk State ahead with 35 seconds left. Then, it was the inability of Ricardo Ratliffe to box out a missed free throw that, although not costing the Tigers any points, took much needed seconds off of the clock.

But despite trailing by two with 2.3 seconds left, it still felt like there had to be a way for the Tigers to win. After all the criticism they had received for their lack of depth and size, for their head coach, and for their weak strength of schedule, this was the time for main seniors Marcus Denmon, Kim English, and Ricardo Ratliffe to step up and prove to the nation how good of a team the Tigers were. No matter what, there was simply no way they could go out in a fashion like this. The types of teams that were supposed to be upset in the NCAA tournament were those who had loads of talent but lacked team chemistry, leadership, and discipline, not ones like the Tigers who seemed as close-knit as a team could be, who had never panicked under any circumstance, and who had always maintained their poise. But as Phil Pressey’s three point attempt at the buzzer clanked off of the iron and hundreds of thousands around the country celebrated a seemingly impossible upset that had just taken place, the harsh reality of the NCAA tournament and its win or go home nature began to set in for Tiger fans.

Mizzou’s blowout loss to Cincinnati in the first round of last year’s tournament has felt like ages ago for some time, as so many positive things have occurred in the past season to erase the memories of last year’s dysfunctional bunch, and the program has made so many leaps and bounds as a whole. But unfortunately, programs are defined by their success on college basketball’s biggest stage, and any way you put it, the Tigers have come up short in the first round each of the last two years, and after today’s loss, many fans around the country will probably view Mizzou as an above average program that was overrated all season and finally met a team (Besides Kansas State) that could solve their formula. Despite being hungry all year to prove their doubters wrong, the Tigers will have to show even more desire next season if they want to show that they belong among the nation’s elite. And with three talented transfers and one experienced senior in Laurence Bowers being forced to watch this year’s games from the sidelines, Coach Haith will not have to go far to find motivation in order for his team to play just as effectively next season. But the wait until next year will be long and gruel for Tiger fans, who on Friday afternoon experienced why March Madness can be filled with jubilation one moment, and excruciating pain and heartbreak the next.