Thanks to an improbable string of three backbreaking, crowd-rousing, clutch three-point shots by Missouri scoring ace Marcus Denmon, the Tigers were able to come from eight points down late in the game to beat their neighboring-state, longtime archrivals Saturday in what could well be the last game between Missouri and Kansas at Mizzou Arena in Columbia.
As a result of the huge home-court win, a game that senior Mizzou guard Kim English said afterward the Tigers knew they were going to win, Missouri moved into a share of the Big 12 lead with the Jayhawks and the Baylor Bears, all with 8-2 records. (MU took over temporary sole possession of the lead after escaping Oklahoma with three-point road win on Monday.) The Tigers closed out the game on an impressive 11-0 run, leaving the Jayhawks stunned and wondering what had happened after Missouri seized control of the game and made things happen. This just in: one of the Tiger guards just sank another long-range bomb...nothing but net.
"We don't go into games expecting to lose," English said. "We prepare to win."
Let's put this win in perspective, though: Kansas had taken control of this game, storming back after trailing at halftime to take the lead and expanding it to an eight-point margin with about three minutes to go. The Jayhawks gave up an 11-2 run to end the first half, but countered it with a 13-5 run of their own to start the second half. The first half was dominated by the home-team Tigers. As a team, Missouri shot over 50 percent in the opening half, only the second time this season that Kansas has allowed a team to do that over a 20-minute stretch.
Missouri coach Frank Haith, in his first season in Columbia, praised his team for continuing to fight, especially late when the outlook seemed dim. "The effort was unbelievable," he said. I have to say one thing. I have to give this win to this crowd, because they were incredible. I think that we don't win this game without their energy and what they brought to the table tonight."
Even Kansas coach Bill Self was taken by the enthusiasm and support shown by the Missouri crowd. That's about as good an atmosphere as I can recall ever seeing at a college basketball game, Self said in his postgame press briefing. "I hope we can generate the same excitement when they come to our place, and I think we will," he said.
Kansas can't afford to stew over the Missouri loss, because the seven-time defending conference-champion Jayhawks have a huge contest coming up Wednesday night at Baylor. Kansas won by 18 a month ago in Lawrence, handing the Bears their first loss after 17-consecutive victories to start the season. But things will surely be different at the Ferrell Center in Waco, something that Kansas is all too aware of. The Jayhawks are 4-2 in true road games this season, and no road game looms larger this year than the game at Baylor against a Bears' team that has only lost one game at home in 12 tries this season (Missouri has been the only team to win in Waco this season).
Looking down the road at the remaining regular-season schedule, there is every reason to believe that the next time Missouri and Kansas meet, at historic Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence on the 25th of this month, it not only will be the final game in this century-old rivalry series but also decide the conference champion and No. 1 seed in the postseason conference tournament, the final one for both Missouri and Texas A&M as members of the Big 12.
I'm happy for Missouri fans that they were able to pull off the win in Columbia in front of their home fans. Nothing would be worse, from a Tiger fan's or player's perspective than departing the Big 12 with the bitter taste of having lost on their home court to their bitter rivals from Kansas, who frankly haven't show much interest in continuing this series beyond this season. Having said this, however, I believe it will take a divine miracle for Mizzou to pull off the same feat in the House of Phog, especially after the win Saturday in Columbia.
Missouri has not won at Kansas in its last 11 trips to play its neighbor to the west. The Tigers last win at Allen Fieldhouse was Jan. 24, 1999, a 71-63 victory. Kansas won the game at Columbia that season by practically the same score.
One thing to be said about the KU-MU Feb. 25 rematch, if there is a year for Missouri to be in a good position to sweep the season series in basketball, this would be it. Haith has the four-guard and senior-oriented Tigers playing great basketball, as good as they've played in the Big 12 era. Conversely, this is not one of Self's better teams. The 2011-12 Jayhawks are very good, but not a great team.
Kansas has shown lapses of consistency and offensive continuity this season. On the other hand, the Jayhawks may have college basketball's player of the year in power forward Thomas Robinson and one of the country's outstanding guards in senior Tyshawn Taylor, and, as Self's team's always do, the guys in crimson and blue play as tough a defense as anyone in college basketball.
KU ranks in the top ten nationally in opponents' field-goal percentage, holding the opposition to under 40 percent shooting from the floor. This should make for one heck of a game in Lawrence, like it was in Columbia, with Missouri being one of the better shooting teams in the country, scoring at a 50 percent clip, the fourth best shooting percentage in the country.
On paper, the two teams are evenly matched and, because of that, just like it was at Missouri, there is no reason not to believe that the rematch could go either way. But it won't because of the enormous home advantage created by where it is being played. Allen Fieldhouse is one of the hardest places to win for opposing teams in all of college basketball.
The Jayhawks are fundamentally sound and a very good team, but at home they become a great team, and their home record over the years - even with this year's team that is a 12-1 playing at home - bears that out. Over the past 25 seasons, Kansas has lost only 26 times in 351 games played at 57-year-old Allen Fieldhouse. Twice since 1994, the Jayhawks have run off more than 60-consecutive wins on their home floor.
If you thought the crowd was a factor in Missouri's Border War triumph on Saturday, wait till the scene shifts to Allen Fieldhouse. This will be the defining factor, and I don't say that because I am a Kansas fan (because I'm not, as those who know me well can attest) or because I'm anti-Missouri or bitter because of its move to the SEC. It's just one of those brutal facts of life: It is extremely rare for a team that comes to the KU campus to take on the Jayhawks to leave with a victory in tow.
And it won't happen two weeks from now.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, there are still some other important games to be played in the conference before and after the second Border War hardwood battle this season. Kansas has Baylor on Wednesday, and next Tuesday has to go to Manhattan, Kan., where a dangerous Kansas State team will be waiting. Missouri hosts Baylor on Saturday and has Oklahoma State (which beat the Tigers earlier in Stillwater), Kansas State (which owns the only other victory over Mizzou this year) and Iowa State at home yet this month.
I see Baylor losing two or three more times and dropping back in the conference race, and the same for Iowa State, which leaves Kansas and Missouri to battle it out in a classic fight to the finish. MU finishes up against Iowa State at home and on the road at currently winless (in Big 12 play) Texas Tech. Kansas closes out the 2011-12 regular season with a game on the road at Oklahoma State and then back home for Senior Day against Texas.
Regardless of what happens between now and the end of the season, the conference championship will be played on Feb. 25 in Lawrence. May the best team - er crowd - win.
For more reference:
Big 12 Conference official website