SACRAMENTO, California–I don’t want to paint with too wide a brush here. I think there are a lot of Mizzou fans out there who, even after a 78-63 loss that you didn’t think would happen, can appreciate the bigger picture. Perspective is quite rare for sports fans, especially online, but there are those who have it and I want to make sure the following paragraphs don’t offend those who do.
I think there are people who want this column to be something it won’t be. Some will want some fire and some rage and some tirades. How could this happen? Where were the tough questions? How can you never use the words embarrassing or unforgivable?
Because it wasn’t. It was just sports. I’m not ashamed of it. You shouldn’t be either. Missouri lost a game to a team that was better than most of the season and a team that would probably be better than most nights. But it wasn’t on this night. And so while Princeton goes to Louisville and plays the game we almost all thought Missouri would play, the Tigers go home.
Do you know who had perspective in the immediate aftermath of the loss? Dennis Gates. And its players.
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Were they upset? Certainly. Hurt? Almost certainly. But asked in the wake of a loss that ended their season and meant that this particular team will never again play a match they wanted to be remembered for, a group of men much younger than me and probably most people reading this, able were to hit the right chord.
“Laying a foundation, building that culture in Columbia, re-engaging fans,” senior Tre Gomillion said. “Just doing things that we did. We shouldn’t have been here at all in the first place. We weren’t supposed to make it to the SEC semifinals. I mean, in the end we lost today, but we have a lot to be proud of. So that’s what I say.”
Of course it was Gomillion who said it perfectly. He did not play the last weekend of his college career. He was in tears for Thursday’s victory over Utah State — Missouri’s first in the NCAA Tournament in 13 years and yes, absolutely, that needs to be mentioned again — because his groin injury didn’t allow him to go. So he sat on the bench and he cheered and he coached and he did everything he could to get his teammates to the Sweet 16. But they came up short.
“I just want to be remembered as a group of guys who loved each other on and off the field.” Ben Sternberg said. “We were in the crib together every day, in the gym of course. Not only that, but we want to be known as the springboard for Coach. Coach, it’s obviously his freshman year. We want him to create the culture here. Now the upcoming teams will follow us.”
Sternberg started at Gates as Cleveland State manager. Then a walk-on from Cleveland State. Then a Mizzou walk-on who is more known for his video blogs than his action on the floor including the final seconds on Saturday. Gates wanted him – and Gomillion and D’Moi Hodge And Mabor Mayak— in Missouri because he wanted a living, breathing example of the culture he was trying to instill in Missouri. Mission accomplished.
“Going to Mizzou wasn’t a hard decision for me, especially when I played Coach at Cleveland State,” Hodge said. “Just laying the groundwork of what we know he can be and what his goals are was really good. The Mizzou fans who support us and have faith in us to come in here and do what we do means a lot to the Columbia community. I thank them for embracing me and my team.”
Hodge was a damn good player in the Horizon League. And then he was damn good in the Southeastern Conference and the leading scorer for Mizzou in that Thursday win over Utah State.
No more than 30 minutes into the last game of their college career, because none of those three or Andre Gholston can come back – they could appreciate the ride they took. And the ride they took us all on.
Some may think this is the easy way out. Why am I not more focused on Missouri losing to 15 seeds in the NCAA Tournament? Where is the anger and frustration that the Tigers had a Sweet 16 performance up for grabs there and couldn’t take it?
That’s a story from Saturday. Doubtless. If you had given the Princeton coach Mitch Henderson a piece of paper for the game and told him to write his script, it couldn’t possibly be much different from what happened. Princeton destroyed Missouri on the boards, bullied them on both sides in the paint, and when they convinced Gates to go to a zone defense to stop the bleeding from the inside Ryan Langborg And Blake Peters bombed to the tune of 9-of-20 from three-point range and held Missouri off for 40 minutes. Princeton isn’t a better team than Missouri every day. But on this day it was better.
“We were able to take the lead one time,” said Gates. “Every time we got the lead or when they were in charge we brought it down to six, they came back down and did what a good team would do, make a shot or make a play. It just wasn’t our day to make those plays or take the same shots.
“They were the better team today.”
Yes, that’s a story. That’s the story of this day. It’s not the one I want to tell. It’s not this team’s story.
“I’ve always valued my boys from the very beginning of our conversations and journey,” Gates said. “They did a great job. They did everything I asked them to do. They did even more, right?
“What they have been able to do together is we look back in 20 years, in 10 years we look back, in five years we look back and see how important it was what they did. finished.”
Some may not think that tonight is the night for that appreciation? But why not? If they can put it into perspective right after the game, shouldn’t we be able to too? They put more into it than we did. It probably hurts them more than all of us.
Embarrassing? Unforgivable? No. Not at all.
It was a bad end to an incredible ride. Just like Utah State was two days ago and will be 65 other endings. If the ending doesn’t hurt, the trip wasn’t worth it. So it’s okay that it hurts now. But it cannot erase what happened along the way.
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