OMAHA, NEB. -- Coach Frank Haith’s first year at the helm of Missouri basketball has produced unlikely success. Friday evening in Omaha, it all came screeching to an unlikely, premature finish.
Missouri became one of only five schools in NCAA Tournament history to fall to a No. 15 seed Friday, suffering an 86-84 loss to Norfolk State that ended the Tigers' season.
The atmosphere in the Missouri locker room after the game told the entire story. Agony, anguish, despair and disbelief all resonated from the heart-broken Tigers.
“Damn,” a bewildered Kim English said, head down with his hands covering his face.
‘Damn’ says it all. The Tigers had accomplished the second most wins and the second Big 12 Conference Tournament championship in school history. And it’s all for naught.
Norfolk State had never knocked off a ranked team. The Spartans had never been in the NCAA Tournament before, much less won a tournament game.
But behind 52 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 54 percent shooting overall, the Norfolk State Spartans pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
“There will only be one team to cut down the nets at the end of the day and we would have loved to have a chance to continue through the tournament,” Haith said.
Down two with 2.9 seconds left, senior guard Matt Pressey inbounded the ball to brother Phil Pressey. The sophomore point guard lowered his shoulder, heading up the court with Norfolk State guard Chris McEachin backpedaling to stay in front of him. With 1.3 seconds remaining, Pressey pulled up, creating distance between himself and McEachin.
Pressey rose up and released a three-point attempt from NBA range. The shot sailed through the air. With it were the collective hopes of Tiger faithful everywhere. The shot was online, but it was just a bit too far, bouncing off the back of the rim and out, bouncing the Tigers from the tournament and ending the Tigers’ magical season.
As hysteria ensued from the Norfolk State bench and the pro-Norfolk State crowd, Phil Pressey buried his head in his jersey and collapsed onto the floor.
“I got a great look," he said. "Nobody shoots 100 percent from the field so you’re going to miss some, unfortunately that’s one I missed."
Prior to Norfolk State’s stunning upset, a No. 15 seed had defeated a No. 2 just four times since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. No. 15 seeds are now 5-105 all-time.
Norfolk State (26-9) entered the NCAA Tournament winners of seven straight, after defeating Bethune-Cookman for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship.
The Spartans continued their hot streak early, jumping out to a 15-7 lead six minutes in.
The Tigers were just 1-of-7 from beyond the arc. Senior guard Marcus Denmon kept the Tigers in the game early, accounting for 11 of the team’s first 13 points. The team found its groove offensively as the half went on, finishing the half shooting 48 percent from the field on 7-of-16 shooting from long range.
Missouri lagged defensively, surrendering open looks and second and third chances to Norfolk State, who also shot 48 percent from the field in the half to have the score nodded up at 38 apiece at the break.
The Tigers took their offense to another level in the second half, shooting 58 percent. But Friday was Norfolk State’s day, as the Spartans shot a remarkable 61.5 percent from the field in the second half and a mind-boggling 83 percent from deep.
With 34 seconds left, as the game and the two teams’ fates hanging in the balance, center Kyle O’Quinn tipped in an air ball from the corner while drawing contact. O’Quinn buried the free throw, putting the Spartans up three.
After Demon missed an ill-advised three, O’Quinn was back at the charity stripe, where he made one of two. With it being a two-possession game with so little time remaining, the Tigers appeared doomed.
But a clutch three-pointer by Phil Pressey pulled the Tigers back within one with 11 seconds remaining. Norfolk State guard Rodney McCauley made the first free throw, but missed the second. O’Quinn out jumped senior Ricardo Ratliffe, tipping the ball in the air twice before coming down with it as the same time as Phil Pressey, prompting a jump ball call.
The possession arrow pointed Norfolk State’s way. O’Quinn missed both free throws. Haith called a timeout to set up the final play with 2.9 seconds left. The rest is history.
The versatile O’Quinn finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds for his 20th double-double of the season. As a team, the Tigers were outrebounded 37-25.
“They killed us on the glass,” Denmon said. “A lot of them were off us playing good defense initially, and then they would get a loose ball, an air ball or a three that rebounded long.”
Seemingly every time Missouri would hit a big bucket, Norfolk State responded. The magnitude of the moment is supposed to overwhelm small schools like Norfolk State. But this No. 15 seed was fearless.
“We thought we had a good chance with match-up, we thought we were bigger at all positions and we thought we had a good chance of winning this game if we played together,” McEachin said.
Missouri junior guard Michael Dixon led the Tigers with 22 points. Denmon and Pressey chipped in 20 apiece and Ratliffe totaled 14.
English struggled, scoring just two points in the contest.
“They made shots and we didn’t execute,” English said. “We weren’t the same team that we have been all year today. That hurts more than anything.”