ST. LOUIS — His body was telling him no. And he knows he probably should have listened. But Keith Pickens just couldn’t miss this.
This is March, after all. This is where the memories are made.
That’s what brought him back. From a college basketball career that was over. Dead and buried. Missouri State announced Pickens was done with a press release a year ago, on March 1, 2013, complete with quotes from Pickens, Bears coach Paul Lusk and athletics director Kyle Moats.
"If I would have let it go, like my body probably told me to, and I probably should have," Pickens said, "but I know I would have regretted it and it would have been even tougher down the road for me."
On Friday there he was, the undersized 6-foot-4 forward with chronic knee pain who walked on to the team this season, tipping in an offensive rebound to give Missouri State a four-point lead with 38.5 seconds left.
"It was a good feeling for that ball to just tip in for me," Pickens said. "I struggled early at the free throw line, so I was kind of down on myself. But my teammates kept me up and told me to keep attacking the glass and that’s what I did. Got myself in position. It’s been a great ride, obviously ups and downs, but it’s been a fun time for me. Obviously I wish it could have gone in another direction with the injuries and everything, but when you get to a stage like this it’s all worth it."
It was his 14th rebound of the afternoon and it may have been the biggest play of the game. Fourth-seeded Missouri State secured a 53-48 victory against No. 5 seed Illinois State a few seconds later and earned a berth in the semifinals Saturday against undefeated Wichita State.
Pickens grew up not far from the Scottrade Center. He was a three-year starter at Oakville High School, where he led the Tigers to a fourth-place finish in the Missouri Class 5A state tournament his senior season.
He signed with Missouri State, to play for former coach Cuonzo Martin, over scholarship offers from Evansville, Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech and Southeast Missouri State. He was a high-flying swingman back then.
Pickens was injured before he played in his first game in Springfield. He ruptured his left patellar tendon during offseason conditioning and emergency knee surgery followed.
He missed the 2010-11 season to rehab. When he returned, he overcompensated for the injury, which led to hip and back problems. The chronic knee pain never really went away.
But he did. Last March. He was done with basketball after starting 47 of 92 games over three seasons. He averaged 4.9 points and 3.8 rebounds and the Bears went 44-48. They were 11-22 in his final campaign.
"Physically, I’m not healthy enough to make it through another season," Pickens said in his career-ending press release. "I have tried to work through the chronic pain I have, and I knew without making progress this year retiring from the game might be a possibility. I’ve tried everything over the last two years, and physically I’m just unable to perform at the level I want."
That was it.
"It’s really amazing what Keith has been able to do on the court in spite of everything he’s been through physically," said Lusk in the press release. "We’re certainly going to miss the energy and leadership he brings. It’s easy to forget that he has been part of this team for four years and has been part of some special moments with this program."
But Pickens wasn’t done, after all.
MSU announced in early September that he would return for his final season. He wanted to give it another shot. One more season.
The pain would persist. The injuries would keep coming. It hasn’t been the easiest season of his career, but he’s still here, still fighting, still doing whatever he can to provide more special moments.
"It’s really an amazing story," Lusk said. "He’s an amazing individual. I have a ton of respect for him, as do all these other guys. They respect him so much because you see what the young man has gone through on a daily basis. This will be finishing my third year here, and there’s never been one time since I’ve been here that he’s been healthy, never. And, obviously, it got to the point last year to where he just didn’t think he could go anymore."
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"Fortunately for us and for him, he decided to come back, and he’s had his ups and downs this year. Hurt his knee in the fourth game of the year, missed an extended time, came back and got out of the gates after Christmas to really playing good basketball against SEMO and Illinois State, and then the stress fracture. And he’s dealt with that all year.
"It’s tough, but he’s tough. Any time he’s on the court, it affects winning, and he helps us."
He did just that against the Redbirds on Friday.
He scored just four points on 2-of-6 shooting and missed all four of his free throw attempts, but he grabbed 14 rebounds (eight offensive) and added two assists, a blocked shot and a steal in 30 minutes.
It was the kind of performance he’ll never forget, playing in his hometown in front of 10,260 fans. He added to the madness of March.
Pickens knows his college basketball career will be over soon enough. It was already over once before. A year ago, it looked like he would be in the stands watching his former teammates rather than helping them win their 20th game of the season.
"I didn’t want to look back and regret this decision not to play," he said. "I knew if I would’ve not came back, to see this tournament right now, I would have felt some regret there. It was a good decision for me and it will pay for itself later down the road."