Sunday, February 5, 2012

Border War win solidifies Missouri as Big 12 contender

Last Saturday’s Missouri-Kansas clash was one of the most hyped games in the Border War’s storied history, and yet somehow, the actual game lived up to, even exceeded, the pregame buildup as Missouri rallied for an epic 74-71 win.

Missouri (21-2, 8-2 in Big 12 play) pulled out all the stops for the last scheduled Kansas game in Columbia, at least until tensions surrounding conference realignment cool a bit. Missouri shot off fireworks from atop the massive scoreboard hanging above center court before the game, and all night long Mizzou Arena was as loud as it’s ever been. Longtime broadcaster Mike Kelly favorably compared the atmosphere to even those madcap environments in the old Hearnes Center.

The first half featured a preposterous 13 lead changes as these ancient rivals traded punches. In the scintillating second half, Kansas roared back to take the lead, going up 71-63 with a little over two minutes to play.

But on this grand stage, with Tiger fans beginning to get desperate, Missouri dug deep for one last great push. Devastating turnovers and two missed free throws by Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor, along with huge shots by Missouri, including two sublime three-pointers by Marcus Denmon, keyed the Tigers’ 11-0 run to close out the game.

Denmon busted out of a weeks-long shooting slump to pour in 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Mike Dixon has 15 points on four-of-five shooting. Kim English threw up at halftime but still played a crucial role for Missouri at both ends.

With Ricardo Ratliffe battling foul trouble, backup forward Steve Moore, a crowd favorite, stood tall against Kansas’ mighty Thomas Robinson, a national player of the year candidate. Robinson was great, with 25 points and 13 rebounds, but Moore made him earn every inch. One of the enduring images in a night full of them was Moore racing back down the court after a Tiger offensive possession, running with the frantic zeal of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner, making even the most logical person wonder if giving 110 percent is actually possible.

As Tiger fans left the Arena with goosebumps and ringing ears, they have a team in the thick of what looks to be a fantastic conference title race. At the start of this week, Missouri, Kansas and Baylor were in a three-way tie for first in the Big 12 with 8-2 conference records. Kansas travels to Baylor for a big game Wednesday (6 p.m. on ESPN2). Missouri has beaten the other two, but still has a daunting Feb. 25 game at Kansas and Saturday’s home game with Baylor (12:30 p.m. on Big 12 network, will be broadcast on a local channel). The Baylor game comes after Monday's quick turnaround game at Oklahoma (6 p.m. on ESPNU).

Missouri beat then-No. 3 Baylor 89-88 on Jan. 21 in Waco. Missouri outrebounded the long and athletic Bears that day. I’d expect Baylor big men Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy to again present matchup challenges, putting pressure on Ratliffe, Moore and English. But if the Mizzou Arena crowd is even close to what it was last Saturday, the Tigers will get a huge lift. If the guards keep shooting this well, Saturday should be more fun for the Tigers.

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