The Missouri Tigers were so close to packing their bags and heading to Detroit, instead they are heading back to Columbia, but not without a fight. It looked early as if UConn would blow Missouri out of the gym, but the feisty Tigers wouldn't let their incredible run end without fighting like they have fought from the opening day of practice, but they couldn't get over the hump and saw their season end in a 82-75 loss at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"Obviously I hurt for our guys. I thought I could get them to that magical place, and we just came up probably a couple of buckets, a stop here, a stop there," said Missouri Head Coach Mike Anderson, "Maybe we just ran out of time, a couple minutes."
Despite the loss, Anderson was extremely proud of the effort that his guys gave, the trademark of Missouri Basketball under Anderson.
"I tell you what, if our guys came with what they came, they went out the same way they came in to this season," said Anderson, "They came in fighting, scratching and clawing, and if you are going to go out, that's the way you want to go out, fighting, scratching and clawing, giving yourself a chance."
Early on it didn't look like Mizzou (31-7) was going to give themselves a chance. UConn cruised through the pressure of the Tigers with ease and started on a 13-2 run that caused Anderson to call timeout just three minutes into the game.
After the timeout Hasheem Thabeet picked up his first foul and went to the bench. In all, the star center for the Huskies spent 12 minutes on the bench in the first half and it allowed Missouri to stay close.
"They came out, threw the first punch, and we tried to throw a punch back but we just couldn't get over that hump," said Missouri forward DeMarre Carroll, "We tied the game plenty of times but we just couldn't get over that hump. Give credit to Connecticut."
The Tigers went into halftime only down 6, but used a 9-0 run sparked by the Tigers bench, mainly Justin Stafford and Keith Ramsey, gave Mizzou their first lead of the day with 13:30 to play.
The game stayed close the rest of the way, but the Tigers just couldn't take control of the game, mostly because of UConn freshman Kemba Walker. The Bronx native thrived in the type of game that Missouri wanted to play and dribbled right around the Tigers for 23 points, including an incredible bank shot that might have been the dagger to Missouri.
"Coming into the game, we knew he was one of those guys that liked to attack," said Anderson, "That's what he liked to do. There are times when of course in open court I thought he did a good job of getting in there. We didn't fix it on defense in terms of rotating over or deflecting passes."
Walker said that he didn't call bank on the shot that all but ended the Tigers' hopes of a comeback on Saturday.
"Time was running down. The ball was in my hands, and Jeff was there about to set a screen. I told him to get out of my way," laughed Walker, "I kind of just took over. The guy actually played me kind of well. I was turning and turning and I had to get it up. I just threw it up, God help me, and it went in."
In the final minutes of the game, Anderson had Carroll, Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence on the bench because the reserves were playing well. By the time the trio re-entered the game with 1:30 to play, UConn (31-4) had the game all but locked up.
"We were trying to win. We were trying to win," said Anderson as to if it hurt to see two seniors on the bench at the end of the game, "It is not about hurting. It is about winning. That's what we were trying to do."
"Those guys that were out there playing, I thought they had it going on. They were playing well, and they were going to give us an opportunity to win. So some days, you know, guys don't have it so you got to go with the guys that had it going on."
Walker led the way with a career high 23 points for UConn and A.J. Price added 18. Both players were on the All-West Regional team, with Price being the Most Outstanding Player.
Lyons and Lawrence led Mizzou with 13 points each. DeMarre Carroll was the only other Tiger in double figures with 12. Carroll and J.T. Tiller were on the All-Regional team for Mizzou.
There are many stats that point to the downfall of Missouri in the desert on Saturday. The Tigers allowed the Huskies to shoot 70.4% in the first half, but held them to 30.8% in the second half. However, UConn made up for their poor shooting in the second half by getting to the line 26 times and making 21. Missouri shot just 3-7 from the line in the second half.
The Tigers were crushed on the boards 47-32, with Thabeet pulling down 13 boards in just 26 minutes. J.T. Tiller was the leader for Missouri with five rebounds.
"It does feel like it slipped away, that game right there was the game that we could have won, that we should have won," said Lyons, "Like Coach said, it was a couple baskets, missed a shot here, turnover there that could have changed the whole aspect of that game."
The Tigers have nothing to be ashamed of though, going from 16-16 last season to the Elite Eight. But for seniors Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence it was a tearful press conference, mainly because they will never wear the black and gold again.
"We came from nothing, and I'm pretty sure no one expected us to get here except for the guys in our locker room," said Lawrence, "I have never been a part of a team that was more cohesive than this one."
"When you got guys doing whatever it takes to win, you are going to get this far. I know we wanted to go further, and I think we had a team that was able to. Just didn't get the buckets we needed tonight and the defensive stops. Connecticut is a very good basketball team."
For Lawrence, who grew up watching Missouri basketball and was a key part of the revival, he knows the future is bright in Columbia under Anderson.
"I think the future looks very bright here for Missouri."