SACRAMENTO, CA — The Tigers had never seen their head coach cry before Thursday.
No. 7 seed Missouri ran through the Golden 1 Center tunnel full of emotion after defeating No. 10 seed Utah State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 76-65.
“Where’s the radio?” Dennis Gates asked when the team reached the locker room and asked someone to play “California Love” by 2Pac. Gates said at a press conference Wednesday that he had invited his old college coach, Ben Brown, who was head coach at Cal-Berkeley from 1996-2008, to watch Mizzou play. Braun made the trip, along with a handful of former Gates teammates. They were all in attendance as the Tigers’ freshman head coach earned his first tournament victory and led his program to its first Big Dance win since 2010.
It brought tears to his eyes.
“There’s one thing in life you have to be prepared for sometimes, and that’s the unpredictable,” Gates said. “No one in the country, no one in the basketball world expected us to be here in the first place… The only people who believed we could do what we did were the guys in our locker room, of course, our audience, our fan base.” , those who have been by our side from day one. I am extremely proud of the results.”
The results came after a run single-handedly put together by Mizzou’s two top scorers. With 10:46 left in the second half, USU senior forward That’s mine threw down a dunk to give the Aggies their first lead since the opening minutes of the game at 49–47. A minute later senior striker Kobe Brown responded.
The All-SEC First Team selection stole the ball and then downed it near the right block on the opposite side of the floor. He eyed Akin for a few dribbles, turned left to drive down the baseline, and got up to pull off a reverse dunk. Higher guard Three million asked Brown in the locker room after the game how he would rate the dunk. Fellow senior security guard Ben Sternberg answered for him – a 23 out of 10.
Brown was limited to six points in the first half after committing two errors in the first eight minutes. After his dunk, however, he scored all of the Tigers’ next 10 points, draining a trio of three-pointers and sinking a free throw.
After Brown drilled his second triple, he turned to the Missouri bench and faced Gates.
“I’m here,” Brown told him.
“Yes, you are,” Gates said back.
Higher guard D’Me Hodge kept the team rolling by scoring the team’s next eight points. On one play, Hodge took the ball on the right for an outfield throw-in and called senior forward Noah Carter’s attention. Hodge tossed the ball to him, then whizzed down the baseline. Carter bounced it right back at him and Hodge knocked down the give-and-go dunk with a punch.
“I know Noah’s a great passer,” Hodge said. “I try to do that every time with Noah because I know I’m faster than most of the players guarding me. I just try to give him the ball and run fast. We tried against Alabama and it wasn’t open, so he didn’t give me the pass. Today I said ‘Noah!’ and handed him the ball before he even saw it.
Hodge followed with a 3-pointer on the next possession to make it a 20-7 run and take a 67-56 lead with 3:55 left. The Aggies (26-9, 13-5 MWC) could never cut the deficit to less than eight as they were eliminated in the first round.
Brown finished the game with 19 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block. Hodge added a game-high 23 points and four steals, along with four rebounds and two assists. Gates became the first Mizzou head coach in program history to win his first tournament game in his debut season with the Tigers.
California knows how to party, but Gates said there’s no time to party. The team must immediately prepare for the second round match – there is still a season to go. Not everyone thought they would play this late in the year. But the Tigers always did.
“I think our philosophy doesn’t blink an eye,” Gates said. “We didn’t blink regardless of the noise from the crowd, regardless of the reaction or the plays Utah State made. They are a good team. They had to go for a run. We are also a good team and we had to react. Our guys came forward and responded… The big picture is this: our team is balanced and I’m proud of the way we react in adverse situations.
“Coach Gomillion” will be released in March
Tre Gomillion’s teammates approached him on the touchline about 15 minutes before the tip, hoping to comfort him. Gomillion warmed up with the team as they first came out of the locker room, but Gates elected it was best to keep the team captain against Utah State as he recovers from a groin injury he suffered in January.
It was the third game in a row that Gomillion missed. He was miserable – he wanted to be there for his teammates.
“It’s hard, but those are the cards I’ve been dealt,” said Gomillion. “So I just have to deal with it and give what I can.”
Gates told the Cleveland State transfer that he needed Gomillion as involved as any other assistant coach on the staff. Gomillion did his best. At one point during Thursday’s game, Gomillion got up from his seat and walked over to Gates. He thought the head coach was upset by a phone call or something else that didn’t go to Mizzou’s liking. Gomillion reminded him to keep calm. The players on the floor looked to Gates for confidence at this point.
“His character, IQ affects a dressing room. Kind of reminds me of myself when I was in college,” Gates said. “I didn’t ask about playing time, how many minutes, how many shots. I asked about leadership. Tre Gomillion is the same way… You can see him walking up to me, making suggestions. That’s what I expect and that’s what I expect from him.”
Gomillion was all smiles after the win. He was proud that his teammates had done the job. He gets another chance to play in the second tournament match of his career.
“There was only one way we could pick him up, and that was to win,” said the head guard Andre Gholston said. “You know, give him some time to come back and contribute like he always does. And on the sidelines everyone knows he is a coach. He communicated the whole match, he called sets. He helped us when we needed to get better and everything he said was true. We did everything he said and he helped us win.”
No. 15 seed Princeton upset No. 2 seed Arizona in the game following Mizzou’s at the Golden 1 Center on Thursday, setting up a second-round game for the pair of Tigers squads. Missouri (25-9, 11-7 SEC) will take on Princeton (22-8, 10-4 Ivy League) on Saturday with a time to be determined.
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