LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Larry Eustachy’s life came full circle a year ago when he took Southern Miss back to the NCAA tournament.
After the appearance ended in a loss, he was off to a more nationally relevant job at Colorado State.
Eustachy had no idea what he was getting into in Fort Collins. He knew this CSU team had experience and had made a cameo in the NCAA tournament in 2012.
What he couldn’t have figured was how much this team needed him, and he them.
On Thursday night, the two formed the perfect coach-team union for a clinic on how to stay composed on the big stage. The eighth-seeded Rams were an offensive juggernaut against No. 9-seeded Missouri, shooting nearly 50 percent from the field, exactly 50 percent from 3-point range, and absolutely embarrassing the Tigers on the boards (42-19) in an 84-72 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
How much did the Rams’ unique experience of starting five seniors play into this victory?
“I think it’s huge,’’ said Eustachy, who was stoic on the postgame podium but didn’t hide his euphoria by fist-pumping to the strong contingent of CSU fans at Rupp Arena.
“It wasn’t like they were just happy to be here,’’ he said. “I think that was the case last year, and I told them it was the case with me at Southern Miss last year.
“We intended on winning this game and I think that’s a big difference. Our mindset was terrific, and you couldn’t do that with freshmen. It took men to get that mindset into them, and they bought into everything I’ve talked about.’’
The Rams were led by Dorian Green, who was the much less heralded lead guard on the court next to Phil Pressey, but was the better player Thursday in the way he managed the game. Pressey had to hold together a mishmash of transfers that never seemed to be in sync, certainly not away from Columbia. Mizzou coach Frank Haith said he was proud of the team’s ability to make the NCAA tournament with only one player who played in the Tigers’ loss to Norfolk State a year ago.
A year ago, Haith took over a team assembled by Mike Anderson and was named national coach of the year.
This year, Eustachy took over a ready-made team that immediately embraced him.
“With Coach and the staff, their specialty is what we lacked the most, so I think it was just a perfect fit for us,’’ Green said. “We got a little bit tougher and our defensive rebounding is where we lacked last year. So I think it was just the perfect fit. We couldn’t ask for anything better.’’
Eustachy called the victory over Missouri historic for the school. The Rams' last NCAA win was in 1989.
“This is why we came here, to put this program on the map and make this an expected thing each year,’’ said Green, who like the rest of the seniors was recruited by current Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “This is what we set out to do when we got on campus, and it’s great to see the hard work pay off.’’
The Tigers (23-11) admitted that the Rams were the more aggressive team. They were. It wasn’t close. They were also the more disciplined squad. In order to knock off No. 1 overall seed Louisville -- and Eustachy’s close friend and former high school-mate, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich -- the Rams (26-8) will have to handle the pressure, and the basketball, Saturday.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere, something that we’ll remember forever,’’ Green said. “We have to enjoy it, come out and play hard for 40 minutes and be aggressive from the opening tip. We’ve just got to seize the opportunity and love the atmosphere and compete.’’