Monday, March 26, 2007

1993-94 Redux: Missouri 80, Nebraska 78

(Piatkowski’s shot when so far down before coming out that I remember not really being able to celebrate all that much...I was too shaken...)

March 5, 1994

The second-hottest hand in the Big Eight has been handed a tough task today: Pry an unbeaten conference championship away from the Missouri Tigers.

“They're getting ready to make history,” Nebraska coach Danny Nee said. “It's a tough game for us if they were 1-12.”

But catching the Tigers 13-0 and going for the first undefeated Big Eight championship in 23 years, and with eight seniors in their last game at the Hearnes Center, figures to make it tougher.

As the victories piled up, the Tigers, who clinched the conference title outright a week ago, would barely acknowledge the mathematical possibility of going 14-0. Now at 13-0 and ranked sixth in the nation, Missouri sees no reason to change the measured one-at-a-time approach that has gotten it this far.

Even the ceremony for the seniors, half the roster, won't be too ostentatious.

“We want to recognize them, and we will,” coach Norm Stewart said. “We're going to have a banquet to do that also.

“We'll introduce them and their parents, if they're here.”

Then it will be back to the chores. Stopping the Cornhuskers, who are on a three-game winning streak, second-longest in the Big Eight, is the main one.

“We've got to do a good job of transition defense,” Stewart said. The Tigers did that Jan. 24 in an 89-73 victory in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers made just two of 26 three-point shots.

It was the third game in a winning streak that has now reached 13 games for Missouri.

“It seems like an eon since we've played them,” Stewart said.

In that passage of time, the Cornhuskers (17-8, 7-6) have won their last three games and five of their last seven after losing four in a row, including the Missouri game.

Eric Piatkowski, a 6-foot-7 senior, was named Big Eight Player of the Week on Monday. Then he scored 32 points Wednesday night in a 89-81 victory over Oklahoma State. He's averaging 30 points a game in his last three.

“Eric Piatkowski is playing at an MVP rate right now,” Nee said.

The Cornhuskers' sophomore core -- Jaron Boone, Terrance Badgett, Erick Strickland -- seems to be coming of age. “They've had a really great year,” Nee said. “We feel like we're improving. Strickland, Boone and Badgett, they've improved a lot.”

The Cornhuskers have been taking steps toward an NCAA Tournament berth. A victory at Missouri at this stage would be a huge one.

“I feel we have to play our way into the tournament,” Nee said. “I think if we lose our next two games, we could be out. We're no lock.”

Staying close to the Tigers, who are averaging double-digit victories in conference play, would qualify as a “quality loss,” in the selection committee's estimation.

“I do feel how we play Missouri could affect us later on,” Nee said. “If you're going to lose to someone, it's a hell of a lot better to lose to Missouri than Colorado or somebody.”

The Cornhuskers took that misstep at Boulder, starting their four-game losing streak.

Taking on the Tigers just before tournament time doesn't add any seasoning to suit Nee's taste. “We've had our tests,” he said. “We've been tested. We've played Kansas and Kansas State and Oklahoma State. You've got to play everybody sometime.”

This might be the time for Missouri sophomore Julian Winfield to play again. Winfield, who had a hand in holding Piatkowski to nine points, his lowest output of the season, sprained his ankle against Southeast Missouri State and has missed two games.

“Julian has a good chance of playing,” Stewart said. “If he's able to play, he'll start.”
March 6, 1994

The last time Missouri played Nebraska, the Tigers held Eric Piatkowski to a season-low nine points.

This time around, Piatkowski led all scorers with 26 points and nearly robbed Missouri of a perfect Big Eight regular-season performance.

The 6-foot-7, 215-pound senior guard shot a three-pointer from about 24-feet that rolled in and back out as the final buzzer sounded.

Piatkowski, along with many of the Cornhuskers, stood on the court with a look of disbelief that they had came so close but eventually lost 80-78.

After the game, a somber Piatkowski said the team had agreed not to talk to the media. It was the first time in coach Danny Nee's eight years that Nebraska players have not commented.

Senior Lamont Frazier was one of three Tigers to guard Piatkowski, and he was there for the last shot.

“He was deep, and the only thing I could do was put a hand in his face,” Frazier said. “That far out, you don't want to foul him. You just hope it doesn't go in.

“All I could do was watch the ball. It actually went in, and then it came out. It was like an `Oh, Oh' and then an `Oh yeah!' “

When MU's Melvin Booker saw the ball, it was in the basket. “I thought it was goaltending on somebody,” Booker joked.

Along with Frazier, junior Julian Winfield and freshman Jason Sutherland guarded Piatkowski.

The first-team All-Big Eight Conference player scored 14 points in a span of 4:35, and all before the 10 minute mark of the first half. Sutherland played most of the final 10 minutes of the half, and Piatkowski's only points came from two free throws.

Piatkowski, hoping to repeat as a first-team All-Big Eight Conference selection, was quiet for much of the second half. He hit three free throws in the first 14:35 and finished with 10 points.

“I thought Sutherland did a good job,” Missouri coach Norm Stewart said. “Then he'd have a run, then we'd get some fresh legs on him, but he still had a heck of a day.

“If he'd hit that last basket, you all would be over there talking to him.”
March 6, 1994

Nebraska's last-second loss to Missouri yesterday was enough to shut down what is usually a wide-open program.

For the first time in his eight years at Nebraska, coach Danny Nee told his players not talk to the media. Nee said he also would not speak but did, weaving the F-word into many of his comments.

“I'm not going to talk, because I'm going to go off,” Nee warned outside the visitor's locker room as Missouri players were still on the court celebrating an 80-78 victory.

“You saw the (expletive) game. You gotta write it up,” he continued. “Anything I say, I get (expletive) censored.”

He walked halfway up a ramp leading out of the Hearnes Center, kicking at the pavement as he went.

Nee never mentioned the officiating directly, but he was obviously frustrated with the outcome of several calls late in the game.

Reporters stayed put, wondering if the Cornhusker players would comment. Nebraska reporters stood around debating the calls made in the final minutes of the game, when Nee abruptly came back and reactivated his tirade.

“Nebraska played its heart out,” Nee said unprompted. “My players, we can't play any better. I can't ask anymore of the University of Nebraska than what we did out here on this court.”

By then, reporters thought it safe to slip in a question.

A Missouri reporter asked, “Do you think this game hurts you as far as the NCAA Tournament?”

“Aw, (expletive),” replied Nee, whose team is considered questionable for the tournament. “I have no comment.”

A few seconds later Nee thrust his head toward the reporter and asked, “You don't think we belong in the (expletive) tournament?”

Nee did smile once in the post-game non-interview, when asked about senior Eric Piatkowski's last-second shot that flirted with the rim before it skipped off.

“It was close,” he said with a grin. Immediately, though, the anger resurfaced.

“You saw the last minute,” he insisted. “That's what the story is. Two teams played our hearts out....

“You ever see such a thing?”

Then, Nee finally realized he was granting an interview.

“I can't,” he said, shaking his head. “I'm going to get in trouble, and I've been reprimanded once.”
March 6, 1994

Nobody plans to go 14-0. Yet, it doesn't just happen , either.

Meet the Missouri Tigers, makers of Big Eight basketball history.

Yesterday the Tigers put on a heavy mettle concert at the Hearnes Center, closing the Big Eight regular season with a ballad for the ages.

They wiped handful after handful of sweat from their faces and fashioned a labor-intensive 80-78 victory over belligerent Nebraska that made Missouri only the third team in the league's 36 years to run the gamut. Fourteen conference games, 14 victories. And the last piece of the exquisite puzzle did not fit without excruciating trial and trepidation.

How fitting.

The victory was indeed a microcosm of this team's season.

Dirt under the nails. Ring around the blue collar. Sore backs. Toiling in relative anonymity most of the season.

If this season were a job, this team would have started at minimum wage digging ditches.

Heavy on the hard work. Light on the glamour and glitz.

No shooting stars play on this team, though Kelly Thames is a future star as sure as Norm Stewart is the toast of this town. No, this is a collection of capable, steel-nerved guys -- eight of them seniors -- who each can play the game. But when you put them together, their varying talents complement each other, and the product is an inconspicuous machine that simply consumes opponents.

“This year they seemed to be zeroed in on really being as good as they can be,” said Stewart, who, with his assistants, deserves ample credit for making a deceivingly average-looking team into a landmark.

“They weren't picked high. Nobody, I think, thought that they could win the Big Eight championship, let alone go undefeated, and they did it. That is a special team right there.”

The fact that none of the players seemed awed by their accomplishment is probably another good sign, a sign of maturity and a sign that they want more than regional success. They want to make a run through the NCAA Tournament so bad that they ache.

But you can't begin a season fixated on the prized mallard on the other side of the swamp, if you will. Too many gators to fend off in the interim. Snappers like Central Missouri and Jackson State and Coppin State (Remember those three-, four- and one-point squeakers?) and Arkansas (How can we forget the 52-point wedgy?).

Three games stand out since then:

The turning point, which was the triple-overtime victory against Illinois. Lots of guts expended.

The 73-68 victory at Oklahoma State, MU's first severe league test that seemed to really nourish the embers of this remarkable run.

And, of course, the pillaging of Lawrence, Kan., where the Tigers rallied in the second half to unseat the three-time defending champion Kansas Jayhawks.

Winning on every team's home court in one season is nothing short of stunning. But yesterday, beating Nebraska at Hearnes was no less difficult.

“This was our toughest Big Eight game of the year,” senior forward Jevon Crudup said.

The first half was a symphony of clanks and doinks and watching the Cornhuskers steal easy baskets. The officiating was grizzly, but the play was even uglier at times.

Senior guard Melvin Booker finally liberated the Tigers with 12.5 seconds to play.

“Tonight just wasn't a real good game for us,” Booker said. “But we stepped up and won it with heart. That's what it was: Heart won the game.”

The masses stayed and partied in the Hearnes Center, rejoicing with the players and coaches as they pruned the nets, finally signifying a championship they've had in hand for almost two weeks.

The players took their snips at the nylon and smiled. But they did not linger.

They still have work to do.