It has now been nearly a month since college athletics shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. No games will be played, by Missouri or anyone else, until at least next fall. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find sports to cover. In this series, Mitchell Forde is going to bring a fresh perspective to iconic Missouri games. Each week, Mitchell will watch a Mizzou football or basketball game that occurred before he enrolled in college (fall of 2013) and write a story about the contest. Today, he looks all the way back to 1994, when the Missouri basketball team finished its regular season with a home matchup against Nebraska.
Setting the stage: On March 5, 1994, a capacity crowd packed into the Hearnes Center in Columbia. Not only would Missouri’s matchup against Nebraska mark the final home game for one of the most celebrated senior classes in program history, if the Tigers won, they would clinch a 14-0 record in Big Eight play, becoming just the third undefeated champion in conference history and the first team to accomplish the feat in 23 years. No. 6 Missouri had beaten Nebraska 89-73 in Lincoln earlier that season, but the Cornhuskers, who would finish the season 20-10 and ranked No. 22 in the AP Poll, had upset the Tigers in both meetings the year prior.
Sitting down to watch the first two games in this series felt familiar. Even if I didn’t recall all the specifics of how the contests had unfolded, I at least remembered the results, and I was familiar with all the athletes involved, the context of the season, the commentators on TV, all of that.
This 1994 regular-season finale, on the other hand, was played nearly a full year before I was born, which made for a much more unique experience. I already knew about Norm Stewart, obviously, and I knew that Melvin Booker had been a good player for Missouri (in part because people still grumble about his son Devin spurning the Tigers for Kentucky), but before clicking play on the broadcast, that was about all I could have told you about the 1994 squad. As a result, pretty much my entire first page of notes about this game is not really about the action on the court, but the differences between basketball now and 26 years ago.
First off, the quality of the television broadcast was, to put it mildly, jarring. The blurriness made it difficult to make out the numbers on each jersey; reading the names on the back was impossible. The audio sounded as if a helicopter were landing right behind the two commentators. And the broadcast didn’t display a scoreboard! It’s not like I expected the on-screen graphics of today, which include not only time and score but how many timeouts each team has left, team fouls, constant stat updates and a rolling bottom line showing scores and news from other games, but in such a back-and-forth game, I admit I found it difficult at times to keep track of which team was ahead. (I hope the more senior of our readership don’t dismiss me as a spoiled millennial and stop reading here; I’ll have some nice things to say, I promise.)
Despite the broadcast’s limitations, however, it was clear that the atmosphere was raucous. A couple times during the game, players couldn’t hear the whistle and kept playing after a stoppage. And the court looked awesome. At a time when more and more schools seem bent on adding half-court logos that take up the entire floor, I loved the minimalistic “M” in the circle at mid-court and the Mizzou logo on each sideline. Finally, it’s difficult today to fathom a Senior Day ceremony honoring seven players, six of whom spent their entire college career at Missouri. The fanbase had connections to those players that just aren’t possible to build in the current sport.
Almost all the chatter between the two commentators at the outset of the Raycom sports broadcast centered around the possibility of Missouri going 14-0. Early on, the Tiger players looked like they had been hearing a lot of the same talk. They came out of the gates tight. Those fans that argue that college basketball was a better product 20-plus years ago shouldn’t use the first half of this game as proof.
Forward Kelly Thames hit a mid-range jumper (I almost forgot about those) to start the scoring, then Missouri didn’t score again for about five minutes. By the under-12 minute media timeout, the Tigers had shot 2-13 from the field, 0-5 from the free throw line and had turned the ball over four times. Nebraska led 12-4 at that point, and Missouri is lucky it wasn’t worse. Thames pulled a Jeremiah Tilmon and picked up his second foul about five minutes into the game, and Missouri had no answer for Nebraska’s leading scorer, Eric Piatkowski. Piatkowski scored 14 of Nebraska’s first 18 points. For about the first 11 minutes of the game, he had outscored the Tiger team by himself.
Missouri settled down and got back into the game in large part thanks to the whistles. Piatkowski made a critical error when he fouled Booker, the eventual Big Eight player of the year, on a three-point attempt. Booker made all three free throws, and the foul was the second on Piatkowski, which sent him to the bench and cooled him off. The next trip down the floor, forward Bruce Chubick got called for an offensive foul — his second as well, and the seventh on Nebraska. Including Booker’s three free throws, Missouri would score seven of 10 points from the line, and when Booker rebounded a miss from Lamont Frazier and scored, it put Missouri ahead 26-24, its first lead since 2-0.
Missouri continued the run, extending its lead as far as six points when Paul O’Liney sank a three-pointer, but Nebraska responded with an 8-2 spurt of its own in the final couple minutes of the half. The game went into halftime tied 37-37.
Shortly after halftime, Thames, who had watched most of the first 20 minutes from the bench, drew a foul and missed two free throws. At that point, the freshman from St. Louis had scored just two points and missed all four of his free throw attempts. That would change in a hurry.
The next time he got the ball down low, Thames drew another foul and made both free throws. A couple minutes later, he drew another foul and scored on the play. By about the eight-minute mark in the second half, when he grabbed an offensive rebound and dunked it home, Thames had accumulated 11 points and 11 rebounds. He finished the game with 15 points (13 in the second half) and 13 boards.
Thames’ emergence wasn’t enough to put Nebraska away, however. Missouri did a much better job defensively against Piatkowski in the second half, holding him without a field goal for about 14 minutes, but guard Erick Strickland picked up the slack. Strickland, who wound up playing both professional basketball and baseball, scored seven straight points for Nebraska, which gave the Cornhuskers a 59-58 lead with 9:43 to play and prompted a timeout from Stewart.
For about the next eight minutes, the two teams went blow-for-blow. Booker struggled to get going in the second half, but Thames, Frazier, O’Liney and Jevon Crudup all chipped in timely baskets for Missouri. Yet Nebraska had an answer every time. The game finished with 21 lead changes.
Piatkowski finally shook free for a three-pointer, his first field goal in the second half, with just over five minutes to go and broke a 69-69 tie. Crudup answered with a tough runner through contact, but then Piatkowsky drove and scored again. Missouri took a one-point lead into the final media timeout, which came with 3:21 left, but Nebraska got a putback bucket then two free throws from Chubick to take a 78-75 lead with 1:30 to play. When Booker missed a three-pointer on the other end, Missouri looked to be in trouble.
Nebraska dribbled out about 20 seconds of the shot clock before calling a timeout to set up a play. Afterward, the Cornhuskers couldn’t inbound the ball against Missouri’s swarming defense, so they called a second timeout. Once again, Missouri made getting the ball in play difficult, and the inbounds pass wound up deflecting off a Nebraska player and out of bounds for a key turnover. Missouri capitalized on the other end, as this time Booker’s three-pointer went down — except it wasn’t a three. The officials deemed Booker to have a foot on the line, making the shot a two-pointer and keeping Nebraska up a point.
Here is where things really started to get weird. I think Nebraska’s players legitimately might not have known they were still leading, because the next trip down the floor, instead of wasting more time and forcing Missouri to foul, Piatkowski drove and tried a quick shot. He missed. Missouri got the rebound and threw a full-court outlet pass to Thames, who had slipped behind everyone. Thames caught the pass and got fouled hard from behind by, it appeared, Tom Best. The officials quickly signaled for a flagrant foul and called it on Piatkowski — his fourth. Color commentator Gary Thompson disagreed with the call, and I have to say, I’m with him. Thames hit the deck hard, but the contact actually appeared less violent than a Booker foul on Piatkowski in the first half.
Anyway, because of the flagrant foul call, not only did Thames go to the free throw line for two shots, Missouri would keep the ball. Thames, a 79 percent free throw shooter on the season entering this game, missed the first. And the second. Missouri still trailed by a point with 26 seconds remaining.
The Tigers inbounded the ball to Booker, who averaged 18.1 points per game on the season and had been the go-to-guy in the clutch all year. Booker drove down the right side of the lane, pulled up and hit a tough leaner — but a whistle blew. The baseline official signaled for a charge. The crowd erupted in boos, although Stewart remained shockingly stoic.
In what I guess is the 1990s equivalent of a replay review in a critical moment, the officials conferred at the scorers’ table to discuss the call. At first, the commentators speculated that they could count the basket despite the charge call if the ball was out of Booker’s hands before he made contact with Strickland, which is a rule I am completely unfamiliar with. Instead, the refs settled on a double foul call on both Booker and Strickland. The call was the fifth on Strickland, who had guarded Booker all half. It also gave Missouri the ball back, since the alternating possession arrow pointed to the Tigers.
A quick aside: Watching this game suggested the officiating in college basketball is not clearly worse than it was 26 years ago, as some have argued. It’s always been a difficult game to call because of how quickly it moves. Officials still struggle with block/charge calls today. The main difference is that there were fewer stoppages in 1994. They still had media timeouts, but appeared to just have three per half (I couldn’t figure that out, exactly, but I know there were fewer). Team timeouts were shorter and rarely involved a commercial break. A player fouling out didn’t trigger an automatic timeout. And while the officials did take a moment to talk about this close call late in the game, it took about 30 seconds rather than two minutes at the replay monitor.
Overall, though, there were not fewer fouls in this game than in most of the ones I watched this season (I realize it’s a small sample size, but still) and the officials got plenty wrong, including, in my opinion, this call. I thought the contact between Booker and Strickland looked more like a block than a charge, but it had to be either one or the other. The double foul seemed like a weak cop-out to me. That said, it was kind of wild to see Mizzou get a clear home whistle advantage down the stretch. That’s not something we’ve seen a whole lot of in the past decade or so.
Anyway, after all that, Missouri got the ball again with 16 seconds remaining. Once again, the Tigers went to Booker. This time, he caught the ball just to the left of the top of the key. As he began to drive, Nebraska’s Jamar Johnson appeared to grab him. It looked like Booker sensed the contact, and he pulled up from about 15 feet, drained the bucket and got the foul call. (The foul probably should have been either before the shot or a no-call, but at that point, it really didn’t matter). Booker made the free throw to give Missouri an 80-78 lead.
Nebraska still had a chance. The Cornhuskers got the ball with 12.5 seconds remaining. They looked for Piatkowski, but Missouri did a good job initially denying him a pass. Piatkowski ultimately curled behind a ball-handler and got a handoff about 28 feet from the basket. He gathered his feet and let it fly. The shot looked good as it arced toward the basket and the buzzer sounded. It got about two-thirds of the way down the cylinder before it clanged against the rim and spun out. Missouri won. The call from play-by-play man Dave Armstrong was, simply, “Perfection!”
Missouri’s players mobbed one another at center court. Stewart found Booker’s parents in the stands and pointed to them before joining his team in celebration. Missouri would actually lose to Nebraska in the semifinals of the Big Eight conference tournament. The Tigers would earn a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and would advance to the Elite Eight before falling to Khalid Reeves, Damon Stoudamire and Arizona. While this wouldn’t be the season Stewart and the Tigers finally broke through to the Final Four, the win over Nebraska to cement a perfect run through the Big Eight regular season capped off a magical run that rightly holds a special place in program history.