Throughout the history of the Missouri/Kansas rivalry there have been games of all sorts. From top ranked teams vying for a national #1 spot to unexpected upsets, unforgettable names and legendary plays, Missouri-Kansas rarely disappointed. The constant was Norm Stewart through most of the years, as he battled Larry Brown and Roy Williams. Later, Mike Anderson and Frank Haith each had memorable moments against Bill Self's Jayhawks. There are few moments in Missouri basketball history that will rank as high on fans lists than memorable wins against Kansas. Most can tell you where they were for those specific moments in time. Whether is was John Brown, Theo Franks, Lee Coward, Corey Tate, or today's hero, Marcus Denmon. It's been four years since the Tigers played the Jayhawks in today's memory,
Being from Kansas City and growing up around KU fans that heckled me for years being a Mizzou fan, these games were personal. I got to witness two wins that were a snapshot of what were the two best seasons in my four years as a player. It was the game we circled, the game we knew would be pandemonium if we could keep it close, and a game that the fan base wanted more than anything. Sold out, loud, clutch performances, big play after big play. And Marcus Denmon etched his name in the history of the rivalry, and program.
February 4th, 2012: The Denmon Comeback
It was my senior year, we had a first year head coach, and a 20-2 record (7-2 in Big XII). We started with a national preseason ranking of 25, and had risen to the number 4 team in the country. We felt there was no respect and got all the way to the most talked about team in college basketball. From eight thousand or so fans a night in non-conference, to sell-outs for every game through conference play. We were a group of veteran players and had been to the NCAA tournament the three previous years. Yet everyone coming back were still hungry to prove themselves. We felt like we were prepared for every game, and it felt like we were getting better all season long. Which is tough for an undersized team who lacked depth with the loss of Laurence Bowers to an ACL injury.
News of the move to the Southeastern Conference for Missouri had been made a few months prior. I was at the pep rally, watching hundreds of alumni and students, a marching band, exploding confetti, an SEC banner waved over then SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. It was happening, and the end of the Big XII was nearing and we were getting everyone’s best shot because of it.
After a Michael Dixon game winner and a late game stop to hold off Texas in a one point win, we were back home for College Gameday at Mizzou riding high. The two best teams in the Big XII, #4 and #8 in the country, at Mizzou Arena. The camping out kicked off 72 hours prior to tip off outside Mizzou Arena with the beloved Antlers and Zou Crew. There was an energy, a buzz, and excitement that filled campus leading up to the primetime matchup.
Kansas had a great starting 5 that year. Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey were pro big men, with Withey having his best year at that point at Kansas. Tyshawn Taylor led them with over 18 points per game, Elijah Johnson did a little bit of everything, and Travis Releford was one of the best defenders in our conference. For us, we were small, quick, tough, and we shared the ball. Ricardo Ratliffe going into that game was shooting 75% (!!!) from the field. Yes, I know, Seventy-Five-Percent! Phil Pressey and our guards deserved a lot of credit for that as well. 6’6 Kim English was guarding 7’0 Jeff Withey, and Thomas Robinson was guarding Matt Pressey. From a matchup standpoint, everyone thought Kansas would pound us in the paint. They were 8-1 in league play atop the Big XII, we were third behind Baylor at 7-2 in league play.
Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps, Jay Williams and Jay Bilas were on the floor as we warmed up, the place was at capacity with 20 minutes on the clock. Even Dorial Green-Beckham made the trip from Springfield, at the time the #1 high school recruit in the country for football. As tip approached, and the starting lineups had concluded, smoke filled the air. Not just that, water was on the floor from a firefighter that shot water from the rafters to put out a small fire that broke out atop the video board from the fireworks show. It was a fog, and you could smell smoke during those first few minutes before the first media broke.
Marcus Denmon would begin and end the night that evening. He got us in the scoring column with Stephen Curry like range on a 35 footer a few steps inside the half court Tiger head logo on a busted possession. Through the first 10 minutes of the first half, it was a defensive game. Every bucket was earned, nothing was easy, for both clubs. After a 10-2 run, we were up 17-15. At the 6 minutes mark of the half, there was 3 ties and 8 lead changes. Momentum had shifted to each squad multiple times, both teams attacked the rim, and the passing in the first half was at a high level. Marcus and Kim led us that half, with 16 and 10 respectively. Tyshawn Taylor for Kansas. We went on an 11-2 run to close the half and led 39-34 at the break. A half that saw 13 lead changes.
The start of the 2nd half was where we set ourselves back. Kansas was leading in second chance points at the time 8-0, and we had bad offensive possessions to start the half. Kansas went on a 8-0 run, and Elijah Johnson had two huge dunks to give Kansas the lead early. Thomas Robinson was 3 for 5 in the first half, he was 3 for 5 in the first 5 minutes of the 2nd half by being much more aggressive and assertive. Michael Dixon stopped the bleeding with a huge 17-foot elbow jumper, then Kim English knocked down a huge 3-pointer from the top of the key off a drag screen, pick and pop situation, and we were tied again with 13 minutes to go. After that shot we went cold, and Kansas took a 60-53 lead. We didn’t score again till the 9 minute mark, and once against it was Michael Dixon to the rescue with a huge 3-pointer over Tyshawn Taylor to get the crowd back into it.
7:54. Remember that mark. Marcus Denmon hit another 30 footer, with Elijah Johnson giving him space from deep. Marcus at that point was 4-6 from behind the arc, despite being 5 for 31 from deep in our previous 5 games. With that shot the Kansas lead was cut to 1. That’s when Marcus got the look in his eyes, that look I had come to know well. He was locked in. Not a minute later, Ricardo picked up his 4th with 6:30 to go, which was huge because Phil Pressey was out with foul trouble as well.
As we hit the under 4 media timeout, Kansas was on a run, and they were going to Thomas Robinson every possession. He had 19 in the 2nd half, 25 on the night (11 for 16) at this point, and Kansas led 71-63. We struggled with turnovers, and couldn’t get a shot to fall. Until the 2-minute mark, and then it was time.
Marcus takes over
With 2:05 left in the game, Marcus took a stutter step dribble to the rim for a 3-point play, cutting the Kansas lead to 71-66. We picked up the pressure going full court into a trap, and Thomas Robinson ran over Steve Moore in a controversial call. It was his fourth, and the next possession down Marcus Denmon came off a double screen and buried a 3-pointer with Connor Teahan in his face. Suddenly things were tightening up in just 3 possessions. We had a ballgame. 1:30 to go, 71-69 Kansas, and Marcus had 26. We stayed with the full-court pressure with a half-court trap, getting a Tyshawn Taylor turnover in the front court. That led to the Marcus Denmon corner 3-pointer, and all the sudden with .56 seconds to play, we were up 72-71 after review. From down 8, to up 1, in 4 possessions, on a 9-0 Marcus Denmon run. Kansas was scoreless the final 3:20 after the Taylor dunk that put them up 71-63. It was a remarkable feeling that came over me that I remember to this day, and always will. I was in shock, I almost felt sick to my stomach, and I remember just staring at Marcus Denmon knowing he was on another level during that 2 minute run. What a swing to go from playing from behind, to having a lead with seconds to play.
As Kansas brought the ball at us, Tyshawn Taylor went right to the rim to get a foul called. He went to the line with .41 seconds left, a 67% free throw shooter going into that game. He was tired, grabbing at his legs, bent over, and all I could think about was Sherron Collins doing the same thing at the exact same basket, in the exact same situation. Clank. Clank.
With 22 seconds on the clock, and Kansas fouled Phil Pressey to send him to the line for a 1 and 1. Phil missed the front in, and Bill Self called timeout with .17 seconds to play. We had to get one stop, and we had to close on the defensive end. Something we had done days prior at Texas. After a dribble handoff, Tyshawn Taylor took the ball to the paint and Michael Dixon, to the rescue yet again, beat him to the spot to square his body and take a charge. Pandemonium. You couldn’t hear a thing, I couldn’t hear anything even on the bench. It was the loudest I had ever heard our fans. Michael hit a pair of free throws, and with 9.8 to play we had a 3 point lead at 74-71. 1 possession game, and again we needed a stop. As Elijah Johnson’s prayer banged off the glass, the red light flashed around the backboard and time expired. Sound familiar? Ball-game. Mission accomplished. Instant classic.
Kim English was our vocal leader, and I remember him saying over and over again in that 2nd half, "We’re going to win this game! We’re going to win this game!" He must’ve said it 15 times. He meant it, he knew it, and we believed it. Kim hit big shots throughout the game. Kim knew where everyone was supposed to be on the floor at all times, and did all the little things to help us win. Take charges, screen, rebound, pass, and score when we needed it. John Wooden says it best, "it’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit." This is how I would describe the 2011-2012 season. Guys sacrificing for each other, for the betterment of the team, to succeed together. It was put on full display that night, in one of the best environments I’ve ever been in for a college basketball game.
To describe the locker room following both emotional KU home wins is tough to describe in words. I can remember players, and a first year assistant coach, in tears following separate wins. It was 40 minutes with your stomach in knots, your nerves and emotions uncontrollable at times, and clutch moments with everything on the line. Exhaustion, hugs, fist pumps, jerseys being thrown, the feeling of proving to everyone we were real in that locker room you can’t describe. It’s what brings you together, it’s why you put in the time, the preparation, and the sacrifice. To those that could be there, to those that witnessed these wins, know that you played a vital role staying with us. A part of the Border War history we’ll never forget.
(Photos via Getty.)