The cheers went from feigned to genuine.
An all-transfer senior class and an undetermined postseason fate led to a subdued Senior Night celebration. But when senior guard Earnest Ross pioneered Missouri’s last-minute 57-56 win over Texas A&M on Wednesday, chants and cheers came easy to the 10,655 at Mizzou Arena.
The night started with little fanfare. 2011 featured Kim English, the guy who slept in the practice gym. 2012 had Laurence Bowers, whose time at MU spanned five years.
The last two senior nights also featured Missouri teams with their proverbial NCAA tournament tickets punched. This season, both seniors came to Columbia through different universities, and the Tigers were still fighting for their postseason lives.
Last year’s celebration followed the Tigers’ win over Arkansas and former Missouri coach Mike Anderson in front of a sold out arena. This year’s celebration took place in front of throngs of empty seats 20 minutes before tip.
Forward Tony Criswell, Missouri’s other senior, and Ross walked out to center court arm-in-arm with family members. The fans that made it to Mizzou Arena clapped with civility as the Tigers were honored.
“Nowhere near last year,” sophomore Jordan Flynn, a ZouCrew member, said of the atmosphere before the celebration.
Since Criswell and Ross have been playing for Missouri ever since Flynn got to Columbia, they don’t feel like transfers to him, he said.
Flynn said the team’s lack of success hurt the buzz around senior night.
“It’s definitely serious,” Flynn said. “You’re trying to get into the tournament, where as last year, it was all about revenge over Mike Anderson.”
Sophomore ZouCrew Coordinator Andrew Kendzior agreed that the team’s record hurts the atmosphere, saying that nobody wants to watch an NIT team.
It took a while for the seniors to make an impact. In 38:54 of game time, Ross managed zero points and 4 rebounds while Criswell added two points and two boards.
The Tigers struggled to sink shots in the first half, with Ross contributing to their 26.9 percent shooting. He went zero for 5 in the first half, including missing all three 3-pointers and both of the free throws he attempted.
“Senior Nights are tough,” Haith said, “It takes you out of your normal routine and rhythm. I thought we came out really not focused in terms of intensity.”
The intensity ramped up for Ross with 1:06 to play. That is when he hit his second of two free throws to give him his first point of the game. The Aggies led 54-51.
Ross controlled the final 66 seconds of game time, which lasted 20 minutes. He scored six points, grabbed a rebound and stole two inbounds passes as the Tigers narrowly escaped.
The star senior said he wasn’t worrying about ending his final game in Columbia in style.
“Whether I was hitting shots or not, it didn’t matter,” Ross said. “As long as we win, so, like I said, I’m just happy that we won the game, that’s all that matters.”
Throughout the final minute, the crowd danced, yelled and chanted. The disconnect from the pregame ceremony replaced with intensity and jubilation.
Following the playing of “Old Missouri,” Ross and Criswell took to the arena’s public address system, as is tradition. Those still around listened closely.
Ross told fans that when he decided to transfer from Auburn after his sophomore season, he wanted to go to a school where basketball was appreciated.
“I don’t think I went wrong,” Ross said, as the crowd roared.