OMAHA, Neb. — As quickly and unexpectedly as the Missouri basketball team found success this season, it ended with a thud.
After Friday’s 86-84 loss to Norfolk State, the Tigers walked off the court stunned. Nobody cried. Nobody yelled. Nobody even made a sound as they walked off the court. But like it always is in March, one team’s loss was another team’s gain. Norfolk State players ran around the court celebrating, five of them jumping up and down and pointing to the crowd while standing on the NCAA logo at midcourt.
“This is the highest point of my basketball career,” Norfolk State center Kyle O’Quinn said. “We were just happy to mess up people’s brackets. We messed up a lot of people’s brackets.”
With the loss, Missouri’s name was added to a short list of teams that have suffered NCAA Tournament losses to a 15 seed. The Tigers joined Syracuse, Arizona, South Carolina and Iowa State as the only 2-seeds to lose to a 15-seed since the tournament expanded to its current format in 1985, and the first since 2001.
“We had higher expectations for ourselves,” Missouri senior Marcus Denmon said. “There’s really nothing to say. The coaches did a really good job getting us ready, but they can’t make us get loose balls on the floor or make free throws or get rebounds.”
Denmon, the team’s leading scorer during the season, scored 20 points Friday. But he struggled to make shots in the second half, as did his teammates, and Norfolk State seemed to play with more energy throughout the game. Missouri was out rebounded 37-25 in a high-intensity game that featured 14 ties and 22 lead changes.
“I’ve said this all year about our team but we’re not very big and we have to be so perfect about blocking out and rebounding the ball, and this team was not tonight,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “That did us in. Our rebounding was what did us in.”
Most of Norfolk State’s rebounding came from O’Quinn. He had 14 rebounds, and in one game went from being a talent known only by the most knowledgeable college basketball fans to a national star.
“When you put in a lot of work for four years at a small school, and your locals know you, it feels good to have a little notoriety on the national stage,” O’Quinn said. “It feels great actually.”
O’Quinn was helped out by teammates who didn’t seem to miss. The Spartans, who only shot 31 percent from behind the three-point arc during the season, shot 52.6 percent on Friday. Two players — Chris McEachin and Pendarvis Williams — each made four three-pointers.
Each time, the crowd in Omaha became louder and louder, cheering on the most improbable upset in a decade.
Some in the crowd were of Kansas fans, who were in town to see the Jayhawks play Friday night. O’Quinn and his teammates even got a pep talk from one Kansas fan while they were at dinner Thursday night.
“This lady had to be 75 years old,” O’Quinn said. “She had the KU earrings in, and she said ‘Whatever you do, beat Mizzou.’”
Norfolk State did just that, answering every Missouri run with a big shot of its own.
It wasn’t the first time the Spartans had played the role of the big underdog. They nearly won the Paradise Jam in November, but lost to Marquette in the championship game by two points.
“Being the underdog, everybody likes to see the underdog survive,” O’Quinn said. “In the Virgin Islands we went in with like six fans, and we came out with the whole gym on our backs.”
Norfolk State will likely have the crowd behind them again when it plays 7-seed Florida on Sunday. No 15-seed has ever won two games in an NCAA Tournament.
For Missouri, a strong season that included a Big 12 tournament championship is now over.
“They had a hell of a year,” Haith said. “They won 30 ball games, they’re the winningest senior class in the history of Missouri basketball. They’ve accomplished a great deal and I’m proud of them. We’re disappointed we can’t continue on in this tournament, but I’m very proud of these young men.”