Glendale, Ariz. On one side of the cavernous domed stadium, Missouri fans were still on their feet, stomping and laughing, cheering and hugging. All they wanted to do was revel in this indescribable moment where their once-woebegone Missouri Tigers had emphatically shocked the college basketball world.
The Missouri Tigers had just knocked off the seemingly invincible Memphis Tigers, 102-91, in the NCAA West Regional semifinals, and now Mizzou fans leaned over the edge of the stands and took pictures of the crazy scene. They waved to all the joyous players who nearly glided off the University of Phoenix Stadium court and danced and pranced their way back to the locker room.
Meanwhile on the other side of the court, stunned Memphis fans — who began March Madness with legitimate national title hopes — were frozen in their seats, unable to fathom how these under-the-radar Missouri Tigers had just overwhelmed their high-profile Memphis Tigers.
And if the Memphis fans could barely believe their eyes, they were in perfect tune with the rest of a college basketball-obsessed nation that is just now realizing the right Tigers are on their way to the Elite Eight showdown with No. 1-ranked Connecticut.
Hello America, meet the most underappreciated team in the country, the 31-6 Missouri Tigers.
“Wow, are these guys this much fun to watch all the time?” gushed ESPN columnist Rick Reilly at halftime. “I had no idea they were this good. Man, this is fun to watch.”
By the end of the game, my man Riles was just as flabbergasted as the rest of the college basketball world. How could Missouri dismantle a team as good as Memphis? How could they put 102 points on a team that has won more games over the last three seasons than any other program in the country? How could they stand up to Memphis’ withering half-court pressure and calmly go to the line and stroke in one nerveless free throw after another in the game’s tension-packed final minutes?
How could they be the last team standing in a track-meet sort of game that was supposed to be perfectly suited to Memphis’ up-tempo tastes?
Well maybe because they’re one of the best basketball teams in the country.
You can no longer put hesitant qualifiers before their name. You can no longer assume that they got here somehow by luck or a weak schedule or any other nonsense that minimized their incredible accomplishments in this dramatic season that revived Missouri basketball as a national force.
“My God, I don’t know what’s going on right now,” said a giddy Matt Lawrence as the senior guard sank in his chair in the joyful Tigers dressing room. “I think we just showed the rest of the country what our brand of basketball is capable of producing. It’s something that not a lot of people are ready for.”
And right now, these Missouri Tigers — shall I remind you once again that they were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12? — are only a game away from the Final Four. That means they are performing at a staggeringly effective level in which suddenly everything and anything is possible.