By Eliza Smith, MUTigers.com men's basketball correspondent
The Mizzou men's basketball team opened its season on Sunday in the "One State, One Spirit Classic" in Joplin, Mo., the site of a deadly EF5 tornado that devastated the town on May 22.
Just seven weeks after being hired as the head coach, Frank Haith set an idea into motion: to take his team to Joplin and play an exhibition game against Missouri Southern State University. Not only did the event raise well over $100,000 for tornado relief efforts, but it brought the light back to a community that is still deep in recovery.
"After May 22 the national media told me, `We'll be here for a few days and then something else will happen and it will carry us away,' and for one night, the national media came back to Joplin, Mo.," said MSSU head coach Robert Corn. "The circumstances that led to this aren't what we would like. Obviously we don't want to play a game because a tornado happened, but it did, and we had a lot of people reach out to us -- none more-so than Coach Haith and the University of Missouri."
The team had an opportunity to tour Joplin, where over 7,500 homes were damaged or destroyed and 162 lives were taken last spring.
"It was devastating to see it with your own eyes," said senior guard Kim English. "What you hear doesn't do it any justice. But just to help in any way we could, it just feels good to know that our basketball team and our university helped put a stamp on this community."
Coach Haith, who visited Joplin four days after the tornado and met members of the community, hopes that his team can learn from their resilience.
"In life, everybody goes through some adversity," Haith said. "I would hope that our team, coming from here, would be able to see the spirit of the folks here in Joplin and the courage that these folks had based on what they had to go through."
The teams played to a Missouri Southern record sellout of 3,477 people and were joined by Govenor Jay Nixon, who spoke in the locker rooms before the game.
The No. 25 ranked Tigers had six players who scored in the double digits, topped by senior guard Marcus Denmon with 25 points. It was their first game under Coach Haith, whose team coasted to a 114-68 win. But that outcome was meaningless as the real winner on Sunday was the city of Joplin.
Missouri Southern is ranked in the preseason Top 10 in Division II hoops and was led by senior center Keane Thomann with 21 points and senior guard Jason Adams with 18 tallies. Adams is only three weeks off of back surgery.
"Mizzou's a real good team, we saw that up there tonight," Adams said. "But they're a bunch of good guys. It's just fun to play a D-1 team like that, and coming to our place, which doesn't happen often."