LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 25: Tyshawn Taylor #10 of the Kansas Jayhawks reacts after scoring as the Jayhawks defeated the Missouri Tigers 87-86 to win the game on February 25, 2012 at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Allen Field House is always special. It's special on a Tuesday in November against Ohio. So you know it won't disappoint when you get a worthy adversary in town. Jacque's three to beat Indiana. The UCLA comeback. Paul's "Senior night." The Oklahoma comeback. The Durant Game comeback. And there are countless others. But this one just might have topped them all.
Ever since February 4th, I was convinced we were better than Missouri. Even without old Withey, let alone new Withey, we outplayed them and gave one away. Get us in The Phog and we would have no trouble evening the score. But oddly enough, as I sat waiting for tipoff, I found myself wishing we had a vintage Kansas team. I love this team. But for that moment, I was wishing that we had a team that I knew would bury the Tigers. Don't get me wrong; that would have been fun. But this was better.
In big games, I always expect us to start one of two ways. Either we'll blow the roof off early, or we'll tighten up and get sloppy. As you know, today we chose the latter. And yet, at the 10 minute mark, Tyshawn hit a three to put us up a point. I could not have felt better. We'd lost Withey and we'd basically been atrocious and yet here we were with a lead. Comfortable as could be. Little did I know, we wouldn't lead again until overtime.
Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves playing a lineup of Tyshawn, Elijah (2 fouls), Conner, Kevin Young and Justin Wesley. If somehow you had not yet realized this team's lack of depth, this should have ben your clue. But again, they hung tough and all of a sudden we were down only 2 with Thomas about to go in and tie it up. Only Steve Moore did what Steve Moore does and blocked him. But a charge was called. Withey was out with 2 and a sprained ankle. EJ had just left with his third. And now Thomas had 2. What was happening. With 4 minutes to go, I just wanted to get into the locked room as soon as possible. But that didn't happen and instead of the tie game we were supposed to have, all of a sudden we were down 12 and jogging up the tunnel.
We were worse against Davidson. But we had never been this out of sorts. Offensively, no one was getting to their spots. Defensively, we were leaving shooters, forgetting rotations, and even forgetting when we were in a zone. Amazingly, that last one happened more than once. Perhaps even more amazing, I felt ok about our chances. Admittedly, this was before I learned that Withey wouldn't be able to go on his ankle.
But things got worse long before they got better. That twelve point lead became 19 and there was no reason to believe it wouldn't keep growing. The one thing this team always does well is play defense. But on this afternoon, they had lost their anchor, and as an apparent result, forgotten how to defend altogether. And then, in typical Elijah Johnson fashion - with two fearless shots that will ultimately be forgotten - a 19 point deficit became a 13 point deficit. It would climb back to 16 later and it was several minutes before we chopped it down to single digits, but hope was fading fast and Elijah brought us back to life.
I have a little rule of thumb that if we get to 70 points, we win. It's not 100%, but pretty close. If you go back and look at all of our losses over the past 5 years or so, I'm guessing you'll find that we didn't get to 70 in very many of them. Oddly enough, it's already happened twice this year. I tell you that because at around the eleven minute mark, I looked up and noticed that it was 67-51. Apparently, 70 wasn't going to cut it on this day. But just like that, we remembered how to defend.
The Tigers wouldn't hit another bucket for 7 minutes of game time. And it wasn't because they went cold. They were barely getting shots. A funny tangent from this stretch - Conner had a steal with us down three and as he was leading the break, Allen Field House hit it's fever pitch for the day. I can't explain why; there were certainly more exciting plays throughout (particularly since Travis missed the layup), but I still can't explain the noise I heard as he crossed half court. Funny how that works. Anyway, we missed a few more layups and never got over the hump, right up until Michael Dixon backed into Thomas Robinson. Who calmly sunk the free throw and knotted things at 75. Yes, 75. Remember what the score was at the eleven minute mark? We had closed the game on a 24-8 run.
But there were still 16 seconds left to defend. Phil Pressey got loose and was heading in...until Thomas comes over and swats away his shot. I have no words.
Much like the last time we forced a climactic overtime, I assumed we had taken control and would cruise. After one minute, we had built a nice 4 point lead (our biggest of the game, if memory serves). Let's put this one behind us. Then Marcus Denmon got the ball. Have I mentioned that I love Marcus Denmon? That dude is nails. On cue, he sinks a three and cuts it to 1. This would not be the last we heard from him. In fact, let's skip straight ahead to a Kansas lead of 83-81 with under a minute. Again, Denmon comes off a screen and nails a three. 84-83 Missouri. We'd already ran our patented ball-screen handoff, so Bill draws up a perfect misdirection off that design and EJ hits Tyshawn for a backdoor jam that puts us back on top by 1.
Keep the ball out of Denmon's hands. Shit, he caught it. He's defended beautifully, and still nails a baseline runner. Have I mentioned that I hate Marcus Denmon. I want nothing to do with that man. Fortunately, he left us 12 seconds. Tyshawn only needed 3, apparently, as he goes the length of the floor and draws a foul on Phil Pressey. I thought the majority of the contact came from Moore, but Pressey got the whistle and I'm told Missouri fans are none too happy. I've yet to see a replay, but I'm confident it can't be worse than the charge called on Thomas from the first game. Hell, it can't be worse than the charge called on Thomas in the first half. Either way, he still had to step up and hit the free throws. Which he did. Calmly, I might add.
Big 12 Champions for the EIGHTH straight year! This team. With one returning starter, and almost no bench. We're a lucky group to have Bill Self and his staff leading our Jayhawks, because what they've accomplished this year should not be forgotten. This is easily the least talented team we've had in over a decade, but they didn't accept a lesser fate. They just felt like it was their turn. The saying goes, "we don't rebuild; we reload." This year, neither happened. Instead, a group of guys who had put in the time, decided to step up and win. No excuses. I'm not sure what the postseason has in store for them, but I know I'll enjoy the ride, because this group won't go down without a fight.
ROCK CHALK JAYHAWK!
p.s. Long before today, I fully expected that this would not be the last game between the two teams. However, I am convinced that we won't be scheduling them any time soon. Unfortunately, I expect the two teams will see each other again in a couple short weeks. But I sure hope that this was all she wrote. What a great way for it to end. The Sprint Center would be somewhat poetic as well, but it won't match what we saw today. Which is also why this series can't continue. Dana O'Neill, who I mostly enjoy, has penned a letter asking Kansas to reconsider. There will no doubt be more with a similar sentiment. But it's one that I don't share. The two games this year were epic, because they pitted two evenly matched teams, vying for a conference championship. The games going forward certainly wouldn't contain the latter, and it's highly unlikely they would contain the former. You see, Missouri is not as good as Kansas. Ever. Take them out of our conference and a bit more luster is lost. Hate is a nice way to start a rivalry, but it's not enough to sustain one. You need more than just hate for a good rivalry, and unfortunately, that's all Missouri is able and willing to bring to the table.