Missouri coach Quin Snyder and his team crafted the perfect story.
After withering from the heights of great preseason expectations to below .500, the Tigers find paradise once lost in a second stretch of Big 12 Conference play as NCAA Tournament outsiders-turned-contenders in a matter of weeks.
The characters were ready; the stage was set. It was Hearnes Center’s farewell, a Border War face-off and an emotional send-off for four seniors.
Before Sunday’s 84-82 defeat against longtime nemesis Kansas, the Tigers forgot one inescapable twist in the plot: Things fall apart.
“Throughout this year, things haven’t gone the way they were supposed to go,” Snyder said. “It hasn’t been a storybook. There hasn’t been a chapter that has ended with a storybook ending.”With two points and two seconds, the Jayhawks flipped Missouri’s script more radically than anyone ever expected.
The Tigers didn’t have any more words for the narrative of what happened, well, none they could use.
“This is the most frustrating thing that I’ve been a part of since being here,” senior forward Travon Bryant said. “We went out there and battled, and they played. It sucks that we’ve got to go out of here without a win. I can say a lot of other different words that I want to say, but I can’t do that.”
It will take more than their four-day wait for Texas A&M on Thursday to forget the well-guarded jump shot from Kansas freshman David Padgett and Aaron Miles’ spirit-sinking 3-pointer, but the Tigers can’t afford to play what-if head games after Sunday’s loss.
It isn’t even an option, Snyder said.
“The only thing you can do with that is persevere,” he said. “That’s the one thing that I think we’ve stressed throughout the season. You really find out more about people when they’re down than when things are going good. We’ve had our share of adversity. There is no answer except to pick up the pieces.”
The game’s final minute won’t haunt the Tigers in Dallas.
Patchy defense and poor free-throw shooting will, though.
Despite nearly matching the Jayhawks basket-for-basket, the game was tied six times and had 17 lead changes, the Tigers couldn’t get defensive stops when they needed them. The Jayhawks outrebounded the Tigers 38-33.
They also missed 13-of-32 shots from the foul line. They erred on the front end of five one-and-one attempts, too.
The Tigers erased remnants of Wednesday’s loss to Texas Tech, turning the ball over nine times compared with 16 and earning only 15 personal fouls, vs. 28 against the Red Raiders.
Snyder said the Tigers’ generally unselfish offense had only 11 assists.
“We didn’t make the extra pass as much today, and I was disappointed with our shot selection at times, the fact that there’s a tendency to feel like you want to have a big game, and our focus got away from us,” Snyder said. “The collective focus that we had was gone.
“I didn’t see the focus on the little things we needed to do to make all that happen. We missed people on block-outs. I don’t think we made the extra pass on time. I think we were a little loose with the ball, especially early. They weren’t as dialed in.”
Fortunately for Snyder and his staff, the Tigers’ recovery plans overwhelmed the suffocating feeling of dejection in the Missouri locker room minutes after the game.
“I’m right along with him (Snyder),” Bryant said. “It’s definitely a loss that, you go out there and you see the type of shots that they made or how it happened and it’s just frustrating to know that, we’re down 10, put ourselves back in the position to win the game, and Padgett hits a shot.
“It’s going to hurt for a while, but you’ve just got to put it behind you and move on. We felt that we’d come in here, go out with a win, but you’ve got to adjust to the situation. It doesn’t have to be the end.”
The Jayhawks’ win not only shattered the Tigers’ hopes of a fifth-place Big 12 Tournament seed and first-round bye, but it also jeopardized their NCAA Tournament security.
With a win Sunday, the Tigers were figured to be a lock, but now winning in the league tournament seems as though it is their best shot at postseason play.
“A lot of times during the regular season we could have just died off, but we kept fighting so now we’ve got another chance: postseason,” senior center Arthur Johnson said. “It’s postseason, so that’s like new life. The regular season’s over. It is what it is, but we’ve got another chance so hopefully we can make the best of it because we didn’t this season.”
Postseason afterlife isn’t too unfamiliar in Tiger territory.
After losing another close game to the Jayhawks at Hearnes in 2003, the Tigers fought their way to the Big 12 Tournament Championship game. That string of spectacular play included a 68-63 revenge win against Kansas in the semifinal round.
Thoughts of Big 12 Tournament play, especially a first-round meeting with Texas A&M, which hasn’t won a league game, give the Tigers a chance to add a chapter in the year’s saga.
“The postseason is where championships are won, and this group has had success the last couple of years in the postseason,” senior Josh Kroenke said. “We’re going to go into it with a positive outlook.”
Johnson isn’t worried about what the conference tournament might do for the Tigers’ ratings or NCAA Tournament hopes. His attitude toward the tournament is like it would be with anything involving winning and losing.
“It’s not over; we’ve still got the Big 12 Tournament,” he said. “Who’s to say that we can’t go down there and win five games? If we’re in the tournament, I want to win it.”
PAULDING A FINALIST: Senior Rickey Paulding is one of 10 finalists for the Senior CLASS Award, which honors seniors.
Public voting will last until March 31 at www.seniorclassaward.com.