It was one of Kansas’ best teams facing a reeling Missouri squad.
The Jayhawks were No. 1 in the county, 22-0 and 8-0 in Big 12 Conference play. College basketball experts were beginning to wonder whether this Kansas team could become the first to go undefeated since Indiana in 1976.
The Tigers were struggling to stay above .500 at 11-10 and 3-6 in the conference. They entered the game 0-4 against ranked teams and were 11-point underdogs despite playing at home.
On Feb. 4, 1997, none of that mattered. The Tigers prevailed 96-94 in double overtime in the best game played at Hearnes Center.
There were other, more memorable moments through 32 years of basketball there: Eric Piatkowski’s 3-pointer rattling out in 1994, giving Missouri its only undefeated Big Eight season. There also was Clarence Gilbert leading the Tigers through four overtimes against Iowa State in 2001. Wrapping up four consecutive conference championships in the Jon Sundvold-Steve Stipanovich era was momentous.
No game could produce as much amazement as this upset.
Missouri has made a habit of upsetting talented Kansas teams at Hearnes Center, and the Tigers had done that the year before, defeating the No. 2 Jayhawks 77-73 on Feb. 10, 1996.
The 1997 Kansas team was a year wiser and much better. It boasted Paul Pierce, Jacque Vaughn and Raef LaFrentz; each went to the NBA.
Throughout regulation, neither team was able to take advantage, with the scrappy Tigers refusing to relent against the Jayhawks. Reserve L. Dee Murdock made two jump hooks to keep the Tigers in the game, and Missouri led 71-68 when Vaughn stepped to the free-throw line for two shots with 13.5 seconds left. He made the first and then missed the second. LaFrentz grabbed the rebound and scored to tie the game.
Missouri guard Dibi Ray had a chance to win the game, but his jumper was off the mark and the teams went to overtime.
Missouri coach Norm Stewart thought his Tigers might struggle in overtime, especially after the emotional letdown of LaFrentz’s basket.
“We had them beat in regulation,” Stewart said after the game. “We just didn’t block out ...
“I thought, after regulation, that was the toughest hill they had to climb because they had the game won. It could have been curtains, but they rallied back into it.”
The Tigers needed two free throws from reserve guard Corey Tate with 10 seconds left to force a second overtime, and he delivered.
Stewart said he was confident the Tigers could prevail if they survived the first overtime.
“Before the first one, I just said get it to the second one (and) you’ll win,” Stewart said. “You never know what will happen. The first thing you’ve got to do is believe you’re going to do it.”
Tate believed. With the game tied at 94 in the final seconds of the second overtime, Missouri had a chance to secure the win. After Vaughn knocked the ball away from Missouri guard Tyron Lee, they fought for possession. The ball caromed to Tate, who grabbed it at the top of the key and threw up a 16-foot jumper.
“I knew if I had a good look, it would go in,” Tate said.
It did, giving the Tigers a two-point edge with 5.6 seconds left and sending the Hearnes Center crowd into a frenzy. After Kansas coach Roy Williams called a timeout to set the final play, guard Jerod Haase drove the ball down the court and found LaFrentz at the top of the key. LaFrentz could not get off a shot in time, and the Tigers had secured the biggest upset in Hearnes history.
Statistically, it was Missouri’s least dominant conference championship. Entering the last game of the 1981 Big Eight schedule, the Tigers were 9-4 in conference play, including losses at Kansas State and Nebraska. With the Wildcats and Rolando Blackman coming to town Feb. 28, the Tigers needed a win to secure their second consecutive conference championship.
They got it in a 46-43 last-second win.
With the game tied at 43 and 7:44 left, Stewart switched into stall mode. Before the introduction of the shot clock, teams were able to delay for as long as they liked, and Stewart found the time as good as any, ordering his Tigers to hold on to the ball for the rest of the half.
It was not the most exciting strategy, but it was effective. The Tigers switched back into offensive gear with a few seconds left. Missouri forward Ricky Frazier had a chance to win the game and did that, hitting a baseline jumper and drawing a foul with eight seconds left. He converted the free throw to give the Tigers a three-point lead.
Stewart said he did not draw up the final shot for Frazier.
“It wasn’t the shot we called for, but it seems the last-second play you call never works,” he said. “From the time he let it go, I knew it was going in.”
The Wildcats had one more chance, but Missouri’s Curtis Berry grabbed his 12th rebound of the day as time expired. Berry also scored 14.
“This is just an incredible feeling,” he said.
Four in a Row
It is surely a special day when two of the best players in school history play their final home game.
It is more important when a longtime coach earns a landmark victory.
When the game clinches a fourth consecutive conference title and the school’s fifth in 43 years, it becomes a day few will forget.
When Missouri beat Iowa State 84-66 on March 5, 1983, it accomplished all three. The game was the last for Sundvold and Steve Stipanovich, whose four years with the Tigers resulted in four Big Eight championships. The win was the 300th of Stewart’s career and gave the Tigers their fifth conference championship in Hearnes Center.
The game itself was less than dramatic. The Tigers cruised to the win behind 18 points from Stipanovich and 12 from Sundvold. The victory avenged a loss at Hilton Coliseum earlier that season and gave Missouri a 12-2 record in conference play.
Breaking New Ground
Although Hearnes Center had been open for several months, the first Missouri game at the arena was a special event. Missouri boasted forward John Brown, a preseason All-American who averaged 21 points in his senior season.
Ohio, Missouri’s first opponent, came into the opener with significant hype as well. Guard Walter Luckett appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the magazine predicted Luckett would make an immediate impact.
Appropriately enough, when the Bobcats visited Nov. 25, 1973, Brown scored the first basket in Hearnes Center. Luckett struggled, traveling the first time he touched the ball and finishing with 12 points.
Reserve guard Gary Link took a starring role, scoring 15 and leading the Tigers to an 87-75 win.
Ohio coach Jim Snyder struggled to understand how Link had done so much damage to his team.
“That's fantastic,” Snyder said. “The rest of them played about as good as we expected ...
“But Link ... man, he threw us off.”