Wednesday, March 28, 2007

1993-94 Redux: Nebraska 98, Missouri 91

(Even at my most naively optimistic, I knew Mizzou was going to get thrashed in this game. The Sports God had worked awfully hard to make Piatkowski’s 3 rim out at Hearnes...he wasn’t going to let us beat them again. And meanwhile, Mizzou got the fourth #1 seed despite having a better record and RPI than North Carolina. I see how it works.)

March 12, 1994

KANSAS CITY -- The last Missouri fans saw of Eric Piatkowski, the Nebraska senior was wandering off the Hearnes Center floor dazed.

Piatkowski's 25-foot shot at the buzzer had ricocheted in and out of the bucket preserving Missouri's 80-78 victory one week ago.

Third-ranked MU and Nebraska meet again at 1:10 today in a Big Eight Tournament second-round game. Piatkowski and the Cornhuskers are eager to play this rematch.

“Oh yeah,” Piatkowski said, grinning, after Nebraska thumped Oklahoma 105-88 yesterday.

“I think early when we played Missouri this year they really embarrassed us on ESPN. We came back and played close down at Missouri, but they were the ones who won the basketball game.

“They're 14-0 in the Big Eight, and that's the reason you come to a big-time basketball program to get shots at teams that are rated so high.

“You've got to love playing a team like that.”

The team that Missouri embarrassed 89-73 on Jan. 24 in Lincoln is not the same team that has won four of its last five games.

The Cornhuskers (18-9) have held opponents to an average of 45-percent shooting the last five games, while NU has been shooting 51 percent.

“We've been playing with a lot of confidence,” coach Danny Nee said. “We cut down on our three-point shots; we've increased our defense and played with better defensive intensity; we've mixed our zones well; we've rebounded well.

“I feel it starts with Piatkowski, the level of play he's had the last five weeks is of an All-American caliber, MVP caliber. I've never seen anything like it.”

At midseason Piatkowski was struggling. He made 40 percent or less of shots in a four-game stretch.

So he began spending an hour and a half in the gym each morning -- outside of practices -- taking about 200 shots.

Since then, Piatkowski has averaged 25.5 points and has made 55 percent of his shots.

“I'm having a great time playing ball right now,” Piatkowski said.

Nee likes talking about Nebraska's surge, but the upswing hasn't left him without praise for Missouri. The Tigers' 14-0 regular-season championship and 25-2 record makes them worthy of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, he said.

“They're a physical team,” Nee said. “They're very mature and strong. I really think they play with a purpose. They never take bad shots. They really get the ball to the open man. They exploit weaknesses. That's why Missouri is 14-0.”
March 13, 1994

KANSAS CITY -- A team that's peaking gave Missouri its first peek at losing in two months.

Nebraska, seething since Saturday when it thought a series of officials' calls cost it an upset victory at the Hearnes Center, ran past, shot over and finally toppled the Tigers 98-91 yesterday in the semifinals of the Big Eight Tournament. It was the first loss in 20 games against Big Eight competition, including last year's conference tournament, and ended a 15-game winning streak.

To hear the Tigers, they were overdue for a loss.

“We won our last three or four games, but we haven't been playing our best ball,” senior guard Melvin Booker said. Booker and other Tigers called it a wakeup call. The box score produced some alarming numbers. Nebraska (19-9) crunched the Tigers on the boards 54-39. Missouri attempted a school-record 28 three-point field goals but got only seven to fall. Nebraska was in position to be the first team in 22 games to shoot 50 percent against the Tigers but missed its two attempts in the final minute to finish 35 for 71.

“Before the game started, we said today wasn't going to be decided by a charging call,” Cornhusker senior guard Jamar Johnson said. “We came out and played like a team today, and that's what you've got to do to beat a team like Missouri.”

Eric Piatkowski, who scored a tournament-record 42 points Friday against Oklahoma, led Nebraska with 24. He had help. Senior center Bruce Chubick and sophomore guard Jaron Boone, like Piatkowski, seem to be playing the best basketball of their careers in the last few weeks.

Chubick had 16 rebounds, breaking his previous high set Saturday, and 17 points. Boone scored 21, and sophomore Erick Strickland, who scored his career-high 28 points against Missouri last season in Lincoln, added 16, including four three-pointers. The Cornhuskers made 10 of their 24 three-point attempts.

“I think the style and the brand of basketball now is the highest that it has ever been at Nebraska,” coach Danny Nee said. Nebraska plays Oklahoma State for the championship today at Kemper Arena.

Mark Atkins went against the grain for Missouri with a team-high 25 points. He made four of 14 three-point attempts and five of six free throws. All of Atkins' free throws came in the second half when he twice was fouled while shooting three-pointers.

“A lot of times, we rushed them. I know I did,” Atkins said. “But we're a three-point team.”

The Tigers, who came in ranked third in the nation, trailed most of the game. They were down 51-40 with 16 minutes left. Atkins's first three-spree at the free throw line put Missouri up 55-54 with 12:26 left. Piatkowski tied it with one free throw, then Melvin Brooks gave Nebraska a 57-55 lead with two more with 12:04 to play. Nebraska led from then on, most of the time comfortably.

Paul O'Liney's three-pointer with 4:44 left brought Missouri within 80-76, but the Cornhuskers ran off again. The final score was the smallest lead they had in the last three minutes.

“We got to the top of the hill, but we couldn't get over it,” Lamont Frazier said. Frazier led Missouri in floor time with 34 minutes and had a team-high nine rebounds. Booker and Jevon Crudup sat out most of the second half.

“I wanted somebody else in the ballgame,” coach Norm Stewart said. “That's just selection of personnel. That's what a coach does.

“We made the hump a couple times. And the people who did it were not the front-line people. And then when I put the front-line people back in,” Stewart made a whistling sound, “we went back.

“Consequently, I gave the other people who had gained the lead the opportunity to finish it out or to play some more.” Among those reserves were O'Liney, Atkins and freshmen Jason Sutherland and Derek Grimm.

Having been scrubbed from the Kemper Arena launch pad, the Tigers have returned home to learn of their final window of opportunity this season, the NCAA Tournament. Those pairings will be announced this afternoon.

“Obviously what we need now is some practice time,” Stewart said.

The end of the winning streak maintains the fact that no team has won the Big Eight Tournament in consecutive years. “We were the hunter last year,” Stewart said. “Now we're the hunted.”

The wound-licking has begun.

“When the time comes for us to play again, I think you'll see a totally different ball team,” Frazier said.
March 14, 1994

KANSAS CITY -- Missouri got half of what it wanted on Selection Sunday. The Tigers drew a coveted No. 1 seed, their first in NCAA Tournament history. But having stated a preference for the Midwest Region, they missed that mark by several hundred miles.

Duke athletic director Tom Butters, chair of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee, explained some of the twists of the process that sent the Tigers (25-3) to Ogden, Utah, to play Navy.

“We do have four, hopefully equal, No. 1s,” Butters said at the Hyatt Regency hotel, where the nine-member committee deliberated from Thursday through yesterday. “But in the S-curve, they are ranked. And we have the responsibility to move those who are preferentially ranked to areas of natural origin where we possibly can.”

In other words, the Tigers finished fourth among equals and went West.

“We're obviously pleased with having received the No. 1 seed,” Missouri coach Norm Stewart said in a prepared statement last night. “We think we deserved it for our play throughout the season. We're looking forward to playing in the NCAA Tournament again. It's one of the great spectacles in sports.”

Stewart's office today said he would be unavailable for further comment before the Tigers travel to Utah.

It's a familiar approach. Last year, the Tigers went to Salt Lake City, where they lost in the first round to Temple. In 1986, Missouri played at the Dee Events Center, the site for Thursday's game, and lost in the first round to Alabama-Birmingham.

Missouri's previous highest seed was No. 2 in 1982 and 1983.

The West's indigenous conferences usually fail to produce a native No. 1 seed or a Final Four participant. Teams from overloaded regions are often assigned the West's No. 1 seed. Last year, Michigan beat Temple in the West final at Seattle to advance to the Final Four.

The whole concept of geographic designation, at least at the top, has seen its day in Butters' assessment.

“If I could do anything to change the present system, I would get rid of `South' and `Southeast' and `East' and `Midwest,' “ Butters said. “Because that is a misnomer. I think it confuses media, and it confuses the public.

“I really truly wish the regions were called 1, 2, 3, and 4.”

Arkansas received the No. 1 seed in the Midwest. If the Razorbacks win two games in Oklahoma City, they move on to Dallas. Big Eight teams were obviously desirous of playing in the Midwest, where the other first-round site is Wichita, Kan.

Arkansas is playing in a neighboring state, as is Southeast No. 1 seed Purdue, which travels to Lexington, Conn. Defending national champion North Carolina is the No. 1 seed in the East at Landover, Md.

“Obviously, somebody had to be shipped west,” Butters said. “As those rankings unfolded, it was Missouri.”

Winning the Big Eight Tournament might have kept the Tigers closer to home in the Midwest.