Big 12 era ends with tears of triumph

Missouri’s historic year took greater form with a Big 12 Tournament title Saturday.
Senior guard Kim English hugs coach Frank Haith after winning the Big 12 Conference Tournament Championship. English was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.

At about 3:45 p.m. on sun-splashed Saturday, at the loading dock location of the Sprint Center where security guards manned an iron gate as it opened and closed, a mass of Missouri fans waited.

Soon, their team would play — and win — its final game as a Big 12 Conference member in the league’s tournament title game against Baylor.

Members of “Mini Mizzou,” many of them with their faces painted, blew their instruments loud, the Golden Girls rattled their pom-poms, Truman danced and an ocean of yellow shirts went wild when somebody shouted above the commotion, “They’re here!”

The iron gate opened and the wide bus went in between the scene as rowdiness ensued on either side. The windows were tinted, so it would have been difficult to see the expression on coach Frank Haith’s face.

“I got emotional,” he said of the scene. “That was unbelievable.”

When Haith had drained all the tears that came from his team’s 90-75 Big 12 championship victory over Baylor and after his players and fellow staffers had all cut a piece of the championship net, he stepped up a ladder and held the nylon up for all those very fans to see.

“Faith in Haith!” they bellowed after Missouri won its second Big 12 Tournament championship in its final year in the league.

Perhaps nobody was more appreciative of the first-year coach than the man who hired him in April.

“It’s emotional for me when I see Frank and hug him,” Athletics Director Mike Alden said, surrounded by reporters on a court strewn with colorful strands of confetti that streamed from the rafters as players pranced and tugged on the Mizzou embroidery on their home jerseys. “… All of the guys. I don’t want to leave everybody out, but just to see them, and to know that they worked so hard. It makes you feel so good.”

Alden’s hire of Haith was initially met with criticism.

“Mike told me, they are going to love you," Haith said, smiling during his introductory press conference in April. "So you lied to me, Mike. Some people don’t love me just yet.”

With the handoff of the championship trophy from Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas, Haith finished his first year with a program-best 30-4 record, and guided the team to a second tournament title before departing to the Southeastern Conference.

After the game, even Haith could not believe his own success.

“We’re 30-4? I mean, shoot, if you told me we were going to be 30-4 at this time of the year, I would’ve said you were crazy,” he said. “It’s just been a special moment. We’re really blessed. God had his hands all over this year.”

Even with the preseason loss of All-Big 12 senior forward Laurence Bowers to injury, Haith found a way for his team to prevail. He called upon senior guard Kim English to fill in at the starting power forward spot. During the weekend, English played like he had been playing the position for longer than five months.

Even while dealing with an injury on his thigh from taking a knee the previous night, English was awarded the tournament MVP.

“I think this team had a never-quit attitude and stayed true to the course,” Haith said. “I think our staff, our players, we stayed true to the course and we’ll be happy with what the end results are. Let’s stay focused on today, and not worry about tomorrow. That’s what this program, this team has done.”

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