What-ifs can be powerful force in sports

What might have been Missouri’s fate if Tyus Edney had missed in 1995?
Saturday, March 31, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sports are full of well-documented what-ifs.

What if that ball doesn’t sneak between Bill Buckner’s legs?

What if Christian Laettner’s shot clanks off the rim?

Those answers to trivia questions severely changed individual games, but what if there was one play that changed an entire sports program?

There is.

Dateline: Boise, Idaho. It was the 1995 men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and Norm Stewart’s Missouri Tigers found themselves seeded eighth. After surpassing Indiana in the first round, the Tigers confidently entered a matchup with top-seeded UCLA.

Missouri clung to a one-point lead with 4.8 seconds left. As it still does today, CBS left your favorite team’s game to bring you this upset-in-the-making.

UCLA inbounded the ball, and Tyus Edney drove the length of the court, dribbling six times before he released a floater that dropped over two Tiger defenders whose high-tops apparently were filled with cement. The ball hit the backboard as time expired then fell through the net to stifle the Missouri upset.

UCLA was the top-ranked team in the country that year, but the Bruins partied like they were the ones who had just pulled off the upset. Bruins fans flooded the court with outstretched arms while cheerleaders clad in blue and gold enthusiastically jumped up and down. The depressed men wearing Tiger gold appeared to be sleepwalking through the chaos. Being on the wrong end of one of the most memorable plays in NCAA Tournament history will do that to you.

If you’re the kind of MU fan who likes self-inflicted pain — or someone who just doesn’t like MU — you can find the clip on; just search for Tyus Edney.

If you don’t care to relive the agony, here’s how the story ended that year. Edney and the Bruins went on to win their record 11th title that year, winning every tournament game, except the one against Missouri, by at least six points.

That one play came and went in a couple of breaths, but it represents a crossroads for two basketball programs.

If the Tigers had beaten the Bruins that year, it could have changed both programs.

A Mizzou win against Mississippi State in the next round would have been probable, and from there anything was possible.

If UCLA had suffered an early round exit, it might have hurt its confidence and even kept it from continuing what would end as a 14-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances.

But Missouri didn’t win, and since then the Tigers haven’t won much — with one exception.

Since 1995, Mizzou has missed the tournament seven times and lost in the first or second round four times. And then there’s the exception: 2002, when the 12th-seeded Tigers overachieved their way into the Elite Eight.

A win against UCLA in the Sweet 16 that year was the only other time the two schools have met in postseason play.

The Tigers actually toppled two of this year’s Final Four during their 2002 run, beating Ohio State in the Round of 32. Missouri has never faced Florida or Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament.

While Missouri’s tournament successes have decreased, UCLA’s have remained strong.

Since 1995, UCLA has missed the tournament twice, lost in the first or second round three times, made the Sweet 16 four times and lost in the Elite Eight once. Oh, and they were runners up in last year’s championship game and are in this year’s Final Four.

Quite a resume.

In those 12 years since Edney’s shot, Missouri has struggled while UCLA has thrived. But the Tigers have had their share of NCAA Tournament highlights, of course.

In 2001, for example, Quin Snyder and Missouri got some payback that was six years overdue.

Mizzou beat Georgia in the first round that year, besting former UCLA coach Jim Harrick. It was Harrick who called the Edney play that beat Missouri in 1995.

What if he called a different play — one that didn’t work?

What if Mizzou rode that win to the Final Four? What if that made Missouri a name as synonymous with college basketball success as Kentucky or Arizona or Duke?

What if? It’s the beauty (and the curse) of sports.

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