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Rivalry Glory At the Amateur Level

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A Daily Babble Production

It's rare that we dabble too much into the collegiate ranks here at the Babble.  But with the Celtics on a two-day lay-off and yours truly still annoyed about the team's inability to successfully get the ball inbounds on Sunday, the timing was perfect for an incredible college hoops game on Monday night.

Last night, one of the nation's most heated rivalries renewed in Columbia, Mo.  The Kansas Jayhawks and Missouri Tigers really don't like each other. Sadly for those of us who lean black and gold,the relationship has taken on a big brother-little brother feel over the years.  Entering last night, Kansas led the all-time series by a count of 166-93, including wins in each of the teams' last five meetings, three of which came by double-digits.  Kansas won a national championship a season ago.  Mizzou had to list two winning percentages, a rather unimpressive one on the basketball court as well as the team's results in the judicial system thanks to a string of arrests for bizarre off-court incidents.

No matter the records of the two teams involved, however, the usually sparsely populated Mizzou Arena always draws a capacity crowd or close to it for the hated Jayhawks.  With the Tigers off to a 20-4 start and undefeated on their home floor, there was an even more excited-than-usual buzz in the arena leading up to tip-off.  There was, dare we say it, confidence in the building.  This was going to be the year Mike Anderson's young run-and-gun Tigers would assert themselves over the perennial Big XII power.

And then it wasn't.

Last night, I witnessed perhaps the worst half of offensive basketball that I've ever seen in person.

Good friend and Columbia Missourian Tigers beat reporter Bill Powell called before the game to say that there were no less than 11 NBA scouts in attendance.  Mizzou senior big man Leo Lyons responded with the wonderful approach of spending most of his evening taking 18-foot fadeaways, falling from the basket regardless of whether any defender was near him.  In the game's first ten minutes, he missed his first three jumpers and had the ball stripped from him.  He finished the night just 4-of-15 from the field.  Grand.

He wasn't alone.  The Tigers, who press from wire to wire and thrive on creating turnovers and attacking the rim, inexplicably came out playing perimeter-oriented basketball.  They didn't work the ball inside at all, had several possessions that featured flinging the ball around the outside until someone decided to heave and couldn't find any offensive continuity.  When the half ended, the Tigers had posted 16 points (in 20 minutes of basketball!) on an abysmal 7-for-29 shooting performance, including 1-of-10 from three-point land.

At the other end, it didn't help that boxing out was evidently not an option.  The Tigers gave up second chances like there was no tomorrow, and the 30-15 count on the glass at halftime was similar to the game's 30-16 score at recess.

The deficit was just 14, but the way the offense was playing, it felt like 25.  The 15,061 observers who had started the game on their feet and hollering were a dejected mess at halftime.  Tigers fans is that they remind me of New York Jets fans: They've been victimized enough over the years that they constantly wait for the other shoe to drop.  Though there was excitement in the air to start this game, there hasn't been as much as one might imagine in town overall for a 20-4 team over the last few weeks.  Or at best, it has been a cautious optimism, as Bill documented before the game on Monday. 

Now, the energy was draining once more.  I went to the game with my pal Blitz, a native of cozy Kirksville, Mo., and a lifelong Tigers diehard.  He put his head in his hands at the break and reflected glumly on the several Mizzou shots that seemed to go half way down before popping out, mumbling, "I guess it's just one of those nights.  This is terrible."

Talk about speaking too soon.

Well, Blitz was right, and he was wrong.  It was one of those nights.  But not the type he - and everyone else in the building - thought it was.  He'll be telling his grandchildren about being at this game one day.

It was one of those nights when a team refuses to go away.  It was the type of night when, sparked by two guards playing life-on-the-line defense at the top of the zone (Zaire Taylor and J.T. Tiller), one of the best defensive teams in college basketball stepped up to the task.  That team forced carries, five-second violations, bad passes, travels, offensive fouls; you name it, Kansas did it, en route to 27 turnovers for the game against just nine assists. 

That home team kept pushing all the way through.  The Tigers scrapped on the ground for every loose ball.  They cut the lead to eight and forced a timeout.  It ballooned back up to 11, and the crowd got restless.  Didn't matter, they kept running, and Lyons cut it to five with a lay-up inside.  When the whistle blew to signal a foul on the play, the place went nuts.  Gold pom-poms waved.  Fans jumped up and down at their seats.  Everyone rose to their feet except for the annoying women next to me who had snapped every picture in sight before the game and then showed zero interest in the actual event.  Ugh.

It was one of those nights where victory refused to come easy.  Despite the pandemonium he created by earning the three-point play opportunity, Lyons missed the free throw.  After Mizzou cut it to three and earned even more decibels of crowd noise, KU ran off eight in a row, including two three-point plays on which Tigers didn't stop the ball and committed touch fouls around the rim. 

But at the end, it did come.  Senior forward DeMarre Carroll's only three-point attempt of the night bounced on every part of the rim and fell in.  Forward Matt Lawrence, long maligned for his inability but do anything aside from set-shooting from the outside, snuck in for an offensive rebound that he turned into a lay-in.  Lyons made two free throws, and finally, at long last, the game was tied.

Noise.

With 90 seconds to play, there was just enough time for the two guards who had led Missouri's defensive awakening to steal the show at the other end.  After missing his first five shots, Tiller, a poor shooter, canned a mid-range jumper from the right wing to put Missouri ahead for the first time in the second half with 51 seconds to play. 

Timeout, Kansas, the Jayhawks' last.  Bedlam in Columbia.  Even the ladies next to me had finally realized it was time to rise.  Novel.

After KU tied it with 31 seconds remaning, Missouri had one more chance with the shot clock turned off to win in regulation.  It was all they would need.

After Leo Lyons controlled the ball for most of the possession, the rock found Taylor, the Tigers' junior point guard, previously 1-of-5 on the night.  He drove right, ball-faked and released from the right elbow.  Splash.

Less than two seconds to play.  Desperation heave time.  Not even close.  Game over.

That's when Mizzou Arena erupted for real.  The players sprinted to the baseline to jump all over each other in front of the student section before remembering to jog over and sheepishly shake their rivals' hands.  Meanwhile, the spectator floodgates broke wide open.  Students rushed the floor, sprinting past event staff members whose roles in the whole matter weren't clear: Watching it unfold in disbelief from the top of the stands, Blitz and I couldn't tell if a certain elderly gentleman was trying in vain to keep the court clear or if his flailing elbows and other bits of contact that he was making with the passers-by were his ways of congratulating the fans, of "being one of the guys."

If he was fighting the good fight, it was a futile cause.  Before the celebration was over, fans covered every inch from the baseline under the Kansas basket to the opposite foul line.  The victorious players stood on the benches and tables, hugging and shouting along with the black and gold faithful, reveling in the greatest win of the Mike Anderson era. 

For one unseasonably warm night in February, all of Columbia seemed to be one.  And the citizens will never forget the night their boys roasted the Jayhawks at the buzzer.