GLENDALE, Ariz. — Missouri’s top three scorers this season saw their careers come to a bittersweet end Saturday afternoon at University of Phoenix Stadium.
DeMarre Carroll, Matt Lawrence and Leo Lyons were the only Tigers to reach double figures in an 82-75 loss to Connecticut in the Elite Eight. Although Missouri finished with a school-record 31 wins, the Tigers fell one game short of the Final Four for the fourth time in school history.
Big 12 Tournament
MU 81, Texas Tech 60
MU 67, Oklahoma St. 59
MU 73, Baylor 60
MU 78, Cornell 59
MU 83, Marquette 79
MU 102, Memphis 91
Connecticut 82, MU 75
Fans can welcome Missouri back to Columbia at 2 p.m. Sunday at the south side of Mizzou Arena.
“We lost the game but throughout the whole season it was a great season,” said Carroll, who finished with 12 points on 6-of-14 shooting. "To come from rock bottom and be where we’re at now, I think it’s a success. We still gained some positives from this whole year, but from the same standpoint, we lost the game and that hurts.”
Carroll knows that at some point, the pain should fade, and he will realize just how far the team came before it fell to the Huskies in the NCAA West Regional final. But after a game where he and Lyons both finished with less than their season averages, it was hard to think about anything else than what could have been.
“I guess when it’s all over, and whoever wins the national championship, that’s when you look back on it,” Carroll said. “But when you still see teams playing, it’s going to hurt because you know you’re supposed to be here.”
Although the loss was still fresh in their minds, the seniors were allowed to do a little bit of reflecting on their improbable season. Missouri didn’t receive a vote in either poll at the beginning of the season, and finished as one of the last eight teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament. The Big 12 Conference coaches picked the Tigers to finish seventh in the conference.
“It came from nothing, and I’m pretty sure no one expected us to get here except for our guys in our locker room,” Lawrence said. “I’ve never been part of a team that was more cohesive than this one. When you’ve got guys who are doing whatever it takes to win, you’re going to get this far.”
Last year, in Carroll’s first season to play after transferring from Vanderbilt, the Tigers went 16-16 and missed the postseason all together. Several off-the-court issues led to suspensions that plagued the Tigers during Big 12 play.
Three years ago, when Lawrence and Lyons were freshmen, things were even worse. Missouri went 12-16 and won just five games in conference play. Lyons averaged only 9.5 minutes per game and Lawrence spent most of his time on the bench.
“We were out there working hard, it seemed like, for a long time to get this program back to where it was,” Lawrence said. “I know for myself and Leo it’s been four years and this was a great way, really, to go out, I think.”
It wasn’t an abundance of great talent that made this team special. Lyons and Carroll might take a look at the NBA, but most scouts don’t think they have the necessary skills to succeed at the next level.
Instead, it was a special chemistry that few could have imagined after a year in which one player was kicked off the team and another transferred at the end of the season. But the leadership of the three seniors, who stressed humility all season, helped Missouri reach heights few would have dreamed possible. That kind of connection brought plenty of emotion from the three seniors.
“As we got back in the locker room, it was more about ….” Lawrence said at the podium as tears began to flow. “It was more about those guys that I’ll never get to play with again.”
Freshman Kim English, who scored just two points Saturday after averaging 12 in the first three games of the tournament, has looked up to Matt Lawrence from the beginning of the season. He had no problem being labeled Matt Lawrence’s backup, and said that's how he will consider himself until he steps on the court in Missouri’s first game next season.
English said he will continue to stay in touch with Lawrence while working hard make himself and the Tigers even better next season.
The seniors said they won’t forget the people that helped them get there.
“Right now it’s about us staying close,” Lyons said. “Our careers are over with, so all we can do is be mentors to the other guys and help them keep a good mindset, keep working out with them, until we do something else.”
Lyons said the role of team captain will be passed on to J.T. Tiller, the junior who was the heart and soul of the Tigers defense all year long. In two games in Glendale, Ariz., he averaged 15.5 points, including a career-high 23 in the victory over Memphis.
Tiller will be the only returning Tiger to have played for three years at Missouri, and the 6-foot-3 guard from Marietta, Ga., said he understands that the impact of this year’s seniors won’t be forgotten.
“I’m going to miss these dudes something serious,” Tiller said. “Because without them, we wouldn’t have even got this far and they built this program up. I’m just following their lead.”