ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Less than an hour’s drive from where two of Missouri’s brightest stars set out for Columbia with college basketball dreams spinning in their 18-year-old heads, Rickey Paulding’s and Arthur Johnson’s careers ended as a nightmare.
Johnson topped off his game-high 26 points with a basket that pulled the Tigers within 65-64 of Michigan with one-tenth of a second left to play, but time had run out on the Tigers in the first-round game of the National Invitation Tournament.
Paulding sank a 3-pointer to pull the Tigers within 63-62 with 50 seconds left, but his last 3-point attempt, with the score 65-62, rimmed out when the Tigers needed it most.
Despite scoring two points in the first half, Paulding finished with 10.
Two of the best high school players in the state, Paulding and Johnson took their Motor City muscle to Missouri, but their stellar statistics were not enough to stifle the Wolverines and keep their college careers alive.
Missouri coach Quin Snyder said that going out with a loss won’t taint their contributions to the Tigers.
“You can’t point to any one game,” Snyder said. “They’ll look at their whole careers and I hope eventually that settles in for them. They’re disappointed right now.”
Since scoring 10 in the Tigers’ 78-62 loss at Nebraska on Feb. 7 when the Tigers fell to 9-10, Johnson took over. He has scored double-digit totals in all but one game and led the Tigers’ offense in their last five games.
He also claimed the top spot on the school’s all-time rebounding list.
“AJ’s played great basketball at the end of the year,” Snyder said.
“I don’t know that his effort was wasted in any way. We certainly know we would like to keep playing, especially as well as he’s been playing.”
The team’s season began as a homecoming tribute to the Detroit duo, a nonconference trip to face Oakland in Detroit.
The season also began with so much promise and a top five national ranking, but the roller-coaster season and swirling expectations came to a screeching halt after Tuesday’s loss.
“As bad as they feel about this game and not realizing some of the goals that we had as a group going into the year, when you look at the spectrum of their careers, our four seniors were terrific young men,” Snyder said. “People that we, I, am unbelievably proud of.”
Paulding and Johnson started the season where they left off after an overtime loss to Marquette in the second round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament. After finishing their junior year with career-high scoring performances, they opened their final year as Tigers in top form.
A preseason All-American, Paulding led the Tigers with 21 points. Johnson, preseason Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, closely followed him with 19. Set to become the school’s all-time rebounding leader, Johnson added a game-high 11 rebounds.
If they had “friends forever” scrawled on the inside of their lockers or sneakers, it wouldn’t surprise many Missouri fans. Since their AAU days in high school, Paulding and Johnson have done every thing together.
They struggled with the expectations, regained their footing under pressure and tried to make the most of their senior years.
In the Tigers’ double-overtime 93-92 win against league champion Oklahoma State, Paulding and Johnson teamed for 60 of Missouri’s points. Paulding led with 31, and Johnson was right behind him with 29.
“We had points in the season where things didn’t necessarily go our way, but I don’t think we ever got to the point where we ever gave in,” Paulding said. “Coming into this game, we were happy to still be playing.”
Although Paulding and Johnson would have been likely first-round picks in last year’s NBA Draft, they chose to return for their senior season.
Now that their time at Missouri has been exhausted, they might have visions of the NBA, but they won’t forget their time as Tigers.
They won’t have to answer reporters’ questions about being the former No. 3 team in the nation or the preseason Final Four predictions, but chances are Paulding and Johnson won’t forget those, either.
“I’m sure I’ll have to explain it to someone,” Paulding said. “It’s over with, and it hurts that it went out on this note.”