Missouri basketball honors young cancer patients on way to improbable win over Mississippi State
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Jen Loos can pick a winner.
As part of Saturday's "Rally for Rhyan" day at Mizzou Arena, every member of Missouri's basketball team wore the name of a young cancer patient on his shirt during pregame warmups. It was Jen, the wife of former Missouri assistant Brad Loos and the mother of the day's namesake, who wanted junior forward Kevin Puryear to wear Rhyan's name across his back.
Loos was the coach who recruited Puryear to play for the Tigers, so when Puryear saw the T-shirt hanging in his locker hours before tipoff against Mississippi State, he suspected it wasn't a coincidence.
"If you ask me," he later said, "I think it was put in my locker on purpose."
On this day, what's become a sacred event for Mizzou basketball, Puryear wore it well. When Missouri gagged away a 12-point lead in regulation, it was Puryear's 3-pointer that salvaged the Tigers' fourth straight victory, an improbable collapse followed by an improbable rally.
No longer a coach on the Tigers' bench, Loos watched with pride as two of his former players delivered the final plays in the 89-85 win, Puryear with the go-ahead home run and Jordan Geist with the extra-inning save.
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"My wife is a big Kevin Puryear fan," said Loos, now a fundraiser for the athletics department. "So she was determined Kevin would wear the Rhyan warmup. We'd like to think that's what gave him the divine intervention to bang that 3 in the corner."
Locked in a tie with the Bulldogs for fourth place in the Southeastern Conference when the day began, Mizzou (17-8, 7-5 SEC) improved to 3-0 in the annual "Rally for Rhyan" charity game, named in honor of 7-year-old Rhyan, who in 2015 was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma. Saturday's sold-out game raised $60,000 for pediatric cancer research, the school later announced.
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With 41 seconds left, Lamar Peters' three-point play put the Bulldogs within five, followed by a turnover by Jontay Porter on MU's inbounds play. Two free throws cut MU's lead to three, and the Tigers' continued to unravel, this time with a Robertson turnover in the frontcourt. Peters followed his steal with a game-tying 3-pointer with 25 seconds left. On MU's final possession in regulation, Robertson couldn't get an open look on the wing and shuffled a pass to Geist, whose 3-pointer fell short.
The Tigers had to settle for overtime after going without a field goal for the final 4:36 of regulation.
"We fell back on our heels and let them come back," Geist said. "We had to go back out there on our toes and give them the first punch."
In overtime, Aric Holman gave MSU a quick five-point punch with two baskets, but the Tigers never staggered. Playing with four fouls, Jeremiah Tilmon stepped in front of Holman to force an offensive foul, and on MU's next possession, Puryear put back Robertson's missed 3-pointer with a left-handed tip.
Puryear wasn't done. With the Tigers down one, Robertson attacked from the left wing, drawing Quinndary Weatherspoon away from Puryear in the corner long enough for Robertson to slip him a pass.
"Here's a guy (Robertson) who's your leading scorer and could have easily tried to make a shot," MU coach Cuonzo Martin said. "But he made the right play."
But was it? Puryear hadn't made a 3-pointer in a whole month, missing 12 straight attempts since his last 3 against Georgia on Jan. 10. For the season, Puryear had made just 25 percent of his 3s before Saturday. But when the ball met his hands, Puryear didn't flinch.
"It was up to me to let it go," he said.
The crowd erupted as Puryear's shot dropped with 10 seconds left, leaving the Tigers with one last defensive stop to make. On the ensuing possession, Peters' otherwise brilliant day ended when he nudged Geist with his right elbow, enough to get whistled for an offensive foul. With six seconds left, Geist sold the minimal contact while falling backward into the lane.
"I didn't sell it at all," Geist said, cracking a smile. "He pushed off."
Either way, Robertson finished off the Bulldogs with two more free throws, giving him a team-high 22 points in the comeback win. Geist added 17 points, Jordan Barnett scored 15 and Puryear had 13.
With another home game Tuesday against Texas A&M, the Tigers have their first four-game winning streak against SEC opponents since joining the league five years ago. With six games left in the regular season, the Tigers face one of the league's lighter schedules down the stretch heading into next month's SEC tournament in St. Louis.
Mississippi State coach Ben Howland, having split two games against the Tigers in two weeks, left Columbia convinced Martin's team belongs in the NCAA Tournament.
"They're already in," he said.
Martin did not dispute his counterpart, but didn't come into Saturday's game believing MU's postseason fate was at stake.
"A lot is made of being an NCAA Tournament team," he said. "If you say there's 64 teams (in the field) are we one of the 64? Without question. That's not the debate."
Mississippi State, another NCAA contender, began the day as the country's worst 3-point shooting team in Division I not named Northwestern State but stayed in the game thanks to some rare long-range success, finishing with 11 3-pointers, the Bulldogs' most in 12 conference games. MSU (18-7, 6-6) sank five of its first eight attempts from the arc to seize an early lead. Xavian Stapleton's first of two 3s in the half was especially costly for the Tigers as Porter fouled him on the attempt, already his second foul just six minutes into the game.
With 6:50 left in the half and Mizzou ahead by three, Tilmon followed a promising start with his second foul, sending him to the bench with Porter for the rest of the half.
The Tigers had faced this scenario plenty of times this season. This time, the early fouls didn't seem to bother Martin's team. Robertson followed a 15-foot jumper with a corner 3-pointer to push Missouri ahead 32-24.
Mizzou took care of the ball unusually well for the most of the first half, going 15:30 until its first turnover, a botched pick and roll between Robertson and Reed Nikko.
In the half's final minutes, Robertson salvaged a possession with a shot clock-beating 3-pointer, giving him 14 points for the half. Geist drilled another 3 on MU's final possession as the Tigers took a 42-33 lead into halftime.
Tilmon lasted all of 11 seconds in the second half before picking up his third foul, soon followed by Porter's third. But just as the Bulldogs got within a point on a 7-0 run, Porter re-entered the game and swished a 3 to stall the visitors' momentum. As he's done all season, especially the last few weeks, Robertson did exactly what the Tigers needed, dropping another deep 3.
Mississippi State trimmed MU's lead to three with six minutes left on Abdul Ado's put-back, but the Tigers stormed back, first with Tilmon's jump hook, then a Barnett dunk in transition. Tilmon pushed the lead to 70-63 with another basket out of the post. Three Barnett free throws on a fouled 3-point attempt stretched the Tigers' advantage back to 10 with 4:02 left.
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The Tigers would abandon that lead and need Puryear's heroics to rally in overtime. He had MU's only two field goals in the game's final 9:36.
This wasn't Puryear's first game-winning 3-pointer. Last March he beat Auburn at the final buzzer in the first round of the SEC tournament, extending Loos' coaching days one more game before the Tigers were eliminated in the next round.
This one was just as sweet.
"Coach Loos was the one who really recruited me here, called me frequently and we really got a chance to build a relationship," Puryear said. "When (Rhyan's diagnosis) happened my freshman year it was really heartbreaking for him. Anytime I can give him support it's really big."
For almost a year, doctors haven't found any traces of cancer in Rhyan's body. She joined her parents and two siblings on Norm Stewart Court at halftime Saturday, beaming while her dad spoke to the crowd about their mission to raise awareness for pediatric cancer. This was the healthiest Rhyan's been for the annual charity game.
"This was more a celebration than anything else," Loos said. "It had more of a joyous feeling."
Puryear made sure of that, sharing the stage with the day's real star with his own dose of resolve.
"That little girl, she's a fighter," Puryear said. "She's been through so much. To see her still smiling ... it makes me really happy."
This article is written by Dave Matter from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.