DALLAS — It was a puzzle, depending on how you look at it, either too complex to solve, or entirely too easy to explain.
Missed opportunities, myriad losses and questions, if not a season, remaining.
Out of the tunnel they came one-by-one, an empty court and nothing but opportunity before them.
Chin first, chin up. Jason Horton leading, senior Jimmy McKinney following a few bodies behind with classmate Kevin Young and All-Big 12 third-teamer Thomas Gardner trailing a few more spots back.
Each of those last three had talked about Thursday’s game as a chance at a new season. The Big 12 tournament offered redemption.
But the season turned out to be unsalvageable.
By the time they returned to the tunnel, the Tigers were 71-64 losers to Nebraska.
And by the time McKinney, Young and Gardner filed in to take reporters’ questions, the chins had dropped. McKinney alternated poses, each including his hands covering some portion of his face. Gardner had raised eyebrows, defying any to ask a question that could possibly be new after a season that begged for wins as much as answers. Young simply stared into space, his mind in another place.
“It sunk in,” McKinney said, “When the clock was ticking. But it’s pretty hard, especially for me.”
Like it had two weeks ago in an 85-78 loss at Iowa State, Missouri (12-16) fought hard, staying within reach before succumbing late. It used that Feb. 28 game as a confidence-builder in coming home to beat the Huskers less than a week ago. But, facing the same foe with the wrong result, there is no next game this time.
And what makes it so hard on them is that there won’t be a next game for McKinney or Young, at least not with the Tigers. McKinney left the court 15 points richer and his chin still up. Maybe he was saving face, delaying emotion until he reached the lockerroom. Maybe his eyes were searching for what’s to come. He can only hope it’s more promising than what he’s leaving behind in the American Airlines Center.
Missouri took a 58-57 lead after a pair of Gardner free throws with 6:42 left in the game, and tied it twice more after losing that lead.
Down three, Missouri looked to have Jason Dourisseau trapped trying to inbound the ball with 41.1 seconds left. But as the five-second count crept toward six, timeout was called by Nebraska (18-12). The Huskers returned to the court, missed a three, but Aleks Maric corralled an offensive rebound and Missouri failed to foul him until after he had found Dourisseau flashing on the baseline, catching the pass and flushing the ball for a two-handed dunk and Missouri’s season for the postmortem.
Gardner said the comeback was fueled by a sense of urgency. Still, Missouri was left with only a sense of finality when an improbable tournament run ended in the probable defeat before it could start.
Looking to solve the riddle of a near 4-0 Big 12 start that melted into a streak of 10 losses in 11 games, the Tigers found only misfit pieces (shot-clock violations, porous defense, rebounds dropped out-of-bounds) Thursday. The so-called carrot that each team in the field is chasing is left for another horse.
Gardner made 3 of 12 from the field. Wearing black compression pants under his shorts to keep his legs warm, he also sported a pair of NBA-logo black socks. And the questioners after the game repeatedly wondered if he would be back to help the struggling if not broken program. He was non-committal, saying time would tell.
The same can be said of interim coach Melvin Watkins, and potentially a handful of other players. Watkins said it was too soon to think about whether he’d come back as an assistant, assuming he won’t remain head coach. He, too, looked emotionally worn down in the press conference, and said he was looking forward to spending a little time with his family.
Missouri’s basketball family has two that won’t be returning to the house in McKinney and Young, though. The loss is the final jagged piece in the mosaic of a season now completed.