I hate February. The factually shortest month of the year is the one that's perceptually equivalent to the hallway in Poltergeist.
Thank God for March. It can be negative 3 degrees on March 1st and I'll still feel better just knowing that February is behind me. More sunlight. Pulse pounding storms. A chance at sustained warmth! And of course, basketball.
Man, I love opening up the windows, listening to a chest thumping Kansas thunderstorm barreling through, and flipping back and forth from a dozen different conference tournaments on a March weekend. It's the perfect start to the post holiday season, soul draining suck that is deep winter.
So as a part my seasonal affective disorder therapy, I choose to start looking to March in my next few posts in something I'm gonna call "March Memories."
Sunday, March 7, 2004: Closing Down Hearnes with a Tigers' Loss
From 1973 to 2004 the Hearnes Center in Colombia, Missouri was one of the most formidable arenas in the Big 8, and subsequent Big 12, conference. A poorly lit square of seats that went four sections high, straight up, which allowed for sound to come pouring down on you in a mind numbing wash of choice Missouran profanity.
Hearnes was home to the "Antlers," the nickname for student section A-16 located right on the court and best known for slinging batteries at opposing players, dropping F-bombs as their every fourth word, and bringing such classy signs as "For a good time, call Roy's mom," the week that Roy Williams' mother passed away.
Before 2004 Kansas had just 10 victories at Hearnes in its 31 year history. In 1997 the Hearnes Center was the sight of a double overtime epic that finished as the Jayhawks' lone blemish on an otherwise perfect regular season record. Tigers fans wanted nothing more than to close their crusty old multipurposed gym with a win over the Jayhawks.
That 2003-04 season Quin Snyder (Remember that guy? The emo haired Duke grad that Missouri picked over Bill Self in 2000) and his Mizzou Tigers came in loaded with talent in Arthur Johnson, Rickey Paulding, Travon Byrant, Jimmy McKinney, Jason Conley and Linas Kleiza. They were ranked #5 in the preseason and rose as high as #3 before Christmas of 2003, but by March of 2004 the Tigers found themselves choking for air in the race for the NCAA Tournament. They were sitting on a 15-11 record going into that final game of the season against Kansas. However, the Tigers had been playing extremely well at home, riding a 6 game winning streak at Hearnes going into March 7th. The Hearnes home atmosphere was the only lifeline they had left.
On the Kansas side, it was Bill Self's first season at the school, and as of this writing the only season he didn't win the Big 12 title. The Hawks went into that final game at Hearnes with just a 19-7 record. Bill's first Jayhawks team struggled with consistency at times during the season. The 2003-04 Jayhawks were coming off of back to back Final Four runs, but the heart of those runs - Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich - was gone and the team underwent a transition from Roy Williams' fast breaking offense to Bill Self's high-low half-court offense and signature tough man defense. Growing pains were to be expected, but by the end of 2004 the team stabilized and was playing its best ball. It was a team that would eventually roll through the 2004 NCAA Tournament and be just an overtime period and a Keith Langford foul-out away from reaching a third consecutive Final Four.
The main key to the improved performance came from the solid post play of Wayne Simien, Jeff Graves and David Padgett. I often wonder how good Bill's 2005 'Hawks team would have been had Padgett not transferred to Louisville. That kid was really finding himself late in 2004 and seemed to be a perfect complement to Wayne Simien's game. But it wasn't meant to be. Four years later Padgett made First Team All-Big East and was one game away from having to play Bill Self's Jayhawks in the 2008 Final Four, but the Tar Heels beat the Cardinals to keep that from happening.
In any case, Padgett was still a Jayhawk on Sunday, March 7, 2004. On that day he'd make one of the biggest shots in the history of the Border War and in the process ruin the Hearnes Center sendoff.
On game day the crowd was juiced; every seat was filled an hour and a half before tip. An arena full of Mizzou fans foamed up on the Border War vitriol that drives fans of both schools to unashamedly condone deplorable acts of Civil War era terrorism. I've tried to explain this Mizzou-v-Kansas hatred to friends from outside the region. They don't get it. It's hard for normal people to fathom why anyone, from either school, should care that much about a sporting event. But Kansas-v-Mizzou truly is as Coach Fambrough always said, "Two schools still fighting a war that never ended." Sports contests just replaced battles. As ugly as the rivalry can get though, as long as we aren't killing each other anymore, it's an improvement.
Tied 40-40 at half time, the last game at Hearnes was building up to another classic Jayhawk and Tiger shot-for-shot slugfest. But it didn't look like it once Self's Jayhawks, on the back of Wayne Simien's big second half, shut the crowd up with a physically imposing 9-0 run that pulled KU ahead 77-67 with 5 minutes left in regulation. Mizzou clawed back though, largely due to Arthur Johnson's herculean 37 point effort, and pulled to within one point at 79-78 with a minute left.
Then the game turned ridiculous. An inbounds pass that was clearly kicked by Jason Conley (but not called by the ref standing right next to him) was then gathered by Conley who took off down the court for a dunk that put the Tigers ahead 80-79. It woke the Hearnes crowd up from their sulky nap. They were back, the vigor of their deafening verbal assault renewed.
Kansas got the ball back with 49 seconds on the clock and Mizzou defenders left Aaron Miles wide open on the left side of the 3 point arc. He may have been an assist machine during his time at Kansas, but Miles was never known as a great shooter. Miles repaid the Tigers' lack of respect for his shooting touch by calmly draining a trey that put the 'Hawks back up 82-80.
On the next possession Conley drove to the paint and was fouled with 15 seconds left. He hit both free throws and locked up the score at 82-82. Once Kansas advanced the ball across half court, Bill Self called a timeout. He set up an isolation play for Keith Langford, who'd made a name for himself at Kansas for making clutch layups at the end of games just like this one.
Out of the timeout Keith took the ball to the edge of the Missouri state logo at half court and dribbled it through his legs a few times as the clock slowly bled out and the noise in Hearnes threatened to lift the roof. With 6 seconds left he charged inside the arc and to the edge of the lane. That's when the Mizzou defender on David Padgett broke off and went to help double Langford's shot attempt. Keith rose, pulled back that sweet south paw shot of his, and then slung a lightning quick pass to David Padgett.
The pass shocked everyone in the building, including the Kansas freshman who clumsily slapped at the ball, trying desperately to make it sit still in his hands. As Arthur Johnson peeled off of Wayne Simien to stop what should have been an uncontested dunk, Padgett instinctually slung a nasty line drive hook shot that looked like it was going to brick so hard that it would bend the rim. In post game interviews Padgett said he just wanted to put it up, hoping that if he didn't make it then Wayne would have had a chance at the put back. The shot went in though, with 2 seconds left on the clock.
When that net kicked out from under the rim with the ball in it, the noise was sucked out of Hearnes so fast that you'd have thought someone had blown open an airlock on a space shuttle in orbit.
Quin Snyder called a timeout to set up a desperation football pass that was ultimately intercepted by Aaron Miles just beyond mid-court.
The 'Hawks had won. They'd never have to play in the Hearnes center again. They dealt a crippling blow to the Tigers NCAA Tournament hopes, and just five days later Kansas officially punched the Tigers ticket to the NIT with a 94-69 beat down in the Big 12 Tournament.
It wasn't exactly Mario's miracle, but David's knuckle-brick hook shot that killed the Hearnes Center was a fine March memory of its own.