Last Team Standing

[Editor's Note: bumped from FanPosts]


They led with their chin all night long.  They kept coming forward, like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, absorbing punches to their face until their opponent couldn’t swing any more.  Then, trailing 54-43 with eight minutes to play, the Missouri Tigers looked at their rival and asked “is that all you got?”


And Kansas looked down and said “yes.”


That’s when the latest chapter in Border War lore was written.

I was there in 1987, when Lee Coward buried a three-pointer – and the Jayhawks – at the buzzer en route to a wholly unexpected league title.  I was there in 1990, when Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler took KU’s number one ranking and claimed it for themselves.  I was in front of my television in 1997, kneeling, praying, weeping and exalting, when Corey Tate’s jumper in the second overtime gave invincible Kansas its only loss of the regular season.  And I was there in 2006, when the Tigers trailed by seven with less than forty seconds remaining, only to have Thomas Gardner heave a series of three-pointers through the rim on his way to 40 points and a shocking victory.


But none of those moments was any more shocking than what happened at Mizzou Arena on Monday night.


Missouri was dead.  Dead.  The Tigers were stifled by the Jayhawks’ oppressive half-court defense, and more particularly by Cole Aldrich, KU’s sensational sophomore center, who dominated the game on the defensive end for thirty-two minutes.  His 15 rebounds and five blocked shots tell only part of the story.  He took up residence inside Leo Lyons’s head, and intimidated every Tiger guard who dared drive to the hoop.


But he also spent precious few minutes on the bench, and in the end, that made the difference.


By the end, Aldrich was dead.  Dead.  A pace that yielded 46 second-half points for Missouri made Aldrich carry his massive frame up and down the court too many times.  Kansas coach Bill Self has worked magic this year with a team that lost six of its top seven players from last season.  But he can’t work miracles.  He can’t make Sasha Kaun or Darnell Jackson materialize at the end of the bench when his center is gassed.  And so with the game on the line, Aldrich stayed on the floor, but he had so little left.  That’s when Missouri attacked.  DeMarre Carroll to the hoop.  Leo Lyons to the hoop.  Guards slashing through the lane.  The lead went from eleven to eight to five to two.


And then Leo Lyons sank two free throws and it was tied. 


You know the rest.  J.T. Tiller hit a jumper to give Mizzou its first lead in 29 minutes, and Zaire Taylor hit his second game-winning shot in a week, and officially became The Closer.  He will never have to buy his own drink in the state of Missouri again.


This couldn’t have occurred with any other visitor at Mizzou Arena.  Games like this don’t happen against Colorado or Kansas State.  In this series, anything can happen.  Anything does happen.  And it always seems to happen in Columbia.  Think of the ten most memorable Missouri-Kansas games.  How many of them happened in Allen Fieldhouse?


The Tigers and Jayhawks bring out the best in each other.  And sometimes, like on Monday, they bring out the worst, but in a gloriously satisfying way.  From the beginning, it was clear that the teams were too amped up, they wanted it too much, the crowd was just a little too nervous.  And once the scoring started, it was a game sometimes short on perfect execution, but continuously long on desire.  The teams didn’t always play well, but they always played hard.  So, so hard.  Norm Stewart hard.  Ted Owens hard.


The game, of course, will be remembered for the result.  But it will also be remembered for another reason.  After some time in the wilderness, basketball is back at Mizzou.  When the last second ticked away, the students didn’t storm The Norm, the players stormed the students, forming an impromptu mosh pit of bliss under the hoop where the Jayhawks’ last shot fell harmless.  The Tigers embraced Mizzou on Monday night.  And Mizzou embraced them back.

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