Coming into Thursday night's match between two-seeded Memphis and Missouri, the three seed, many thought that Missouri would need everything to go right to win the game. As it turns out, that wasn't the case.
Yes, Missouri played one of it's best games to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2002. But it wasn't always pretty, surely wasn't perfect, and hey, a little luck never hurts.
After a frantic first half in which Mizzou extended a 10-point lead with just a few seconds remaining in the opening period, Marcus Denmon unloaded a (contested) prayer from just beyond the Memphis free throw line. Somehow, the shot floated over the extended arms of the Memphis defender, through the air, and into the basket, giving the black and gold Tigers a 13-point lead at the break.
Yeah, it may have been lucky. Do you think Phil Mickelson apologizes for sinking one from 120 yards from the hole? Not a chance.
The fact remained that Mizzou had out-hustled, out-pressed, and out-fought Memphis in the first half. Missouri fans have seen it before this year—a solid first half from a team capable of making any team look bad for 20 minutes. Then, who knows in the final 20?
Missouri came out with a flurry in the second half, quickly extending it's lead to 24 points. In some games, you can chalk up a blow-out. Missouri fans know better.
Memphis quickly responded with nine points, cutting the lead to 15. Robert Dozier, Tyreke Evans, and Antonio Anderson would help Memphis steadily cut the deficit with the kind of skill and precision you'd expect from Coach John Calipari's team. Evans would finish with a game-high 33 points.
By the 2:11 mark, Memphis found themselves in a two-possession game. Down six, a good defensive stand would give them the ball back and make it anyone's game.
Except it never happened that way.
Zaire Taylor, in foul trouble early, came back to draw a shooting foul and hit both of his free throws.
Missouri 91, Memphis 83.
Back and forth the game went over the final two minutes, but Mizzou was able to keep Memphis from getting any closer, hitting most of it's free throws down the stretch.
The fact that Mizzou was able to hit late free throws was key, especially considering it's poor FT percentage in the first half (4-10). Missouri hit 11 of it's final 14 free throws to fend off the furious Memphis comeback.
JT Tiller had the game of his college career for Missouri, pouring in 23 points on 10-16 shooting. Perhaps the most important stat of all, though, was his 35 minutes played.
In a game where Mizzou coach Mike Anderson used 11 players, it was Tiller who weathered the storm, particularly in the first half. With fellow starting guard Zaire Taylor on the bench with early foul trouble, it was Tiller who provided a spark on both ends of the floor.
Early foul trouble, poor free throw shooting in the first half, and tired players all make for a tough road to victory. This Missouri squad showed the country what it is capable of by slicing through the Memphis defense and shooting 53 percent from the field.
Memphis, to it's credit, had it's fair share of easy baskets as well. Both teams played disciplined offensively and held turnovers to a minimum. It was Missouri, though, who consistently found the basket, shot slightly better from the field, and hit key free throws to end the game.
Oh yeah, and hung over 100 points on the highly-regarded Memphis defense.
Missouri 102, Memphis 91.
Up next for Missouri is UCONN in the Elite Eight round, a team who put Purdue away last night without much fanfare, but did so effectively.
A win Saturday night would put Missouri in it's first Final Four ever. But the pressure is on UCONN, not Mizzou. You see, the Tigers are playing with house money. Picked by the Big 12 coaches to finish seventh, the conference tournament champs have nothing to lose when they lace up their shoes one more time in Arizona. UCONN will be picked to advance, and Mizzou fans would be content with an Elite Eight appearance.
As has been the case this season, that exact scenario is what has made the Tigers so dangerous.