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February 4, 2012

Border War beyond Words





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As Elijah Johnson's three went wide and the final buzzer sounded, I had two thoughts. They came in this order:

1. Oh my goodness, they're not rushing the court.

2. How do I write a story about a game that words can't describe?

Missouri and Kansas have now played 266 times.

There have been big games. The number one ranking has been at stake before. So has the Big Eight title and league tournament championships.

There have been game-winning shots. Lee Coward and Corey Tate and Zaire Taylor and David Padgett and Aaron Miles and Kirk Hinrich.

There have been classic games.

There has never-ever-been anything quite like Saturday night.

The day started with ESPN College GameDay on campus, with Digger Phelps pandering to the crowd, telling five thousand Tiger fans (and a handful of those brave enough to wear Kansas gear), "You will beat Kansas tonight."

Excruciatingly, the day rolled on. Games played out across the country, whetting appetites for an 8 o'clock main course. Missouri-Kansas. No. 4 versus No. 8. Big 12-SEC.

Missouri and Kansas traded punches for 20 minutes. The Tigers used an 11-0 run to take a five-point halftime lead. Bill Self said afterwards he felt like his team controlled the opening half except for those three minutes.

Kansas fought back. Thomas Robinson did everything a coach could ask a player to do.

"Thomas played his butt off," Self said.

He scored 19 of his 25 points in the first 16 minutes of the second half. He ended up with 13 rebounds. His name was ready to be etched on the Big 12-if not the national-Player of the Year trophy. He drove Kansas to an eight-point lead, its largest of the game, with 3:25 to play.

And then Kim English told his team "We're gonna win this game."

Maybe some of them believed him. Marcus Denmon did. He may have been the only one.

Denmon hit a layup and a free throw. Steve Moore took a charge. Denmon made an off-balance three. Kansas turned it over. Denmon made another three. Kansas missed two free throws and Missouri missed the front end of a one-and-one. Michael Dixon Jr. took a charge and hit two free throws. Elijah Johnson missed and Missouri won.

The Tigers tied Kansas and Baylor for the Big 12 lead, though they have the advantage of having already beaten both teams. The crowd chanted "S-E-C" at full throat. Self said he doesn't know what will happen three years or five years down the road, but the Tigers and the Jayhawks wouldn't be playing in the immediate future.

But nobody could take the time to analyze what this game meant in the grand scheme of the conference standings, or whether it was the Jayhawks' final trip to Columbia. All of the background storylines faded away. After this one, they didn't matter.

This game was just too good. All those other things were secondary. Two of America's best teams played their "A" games for most of the night. Each had lapses, but each answered every single punch the other could throw. Self said he was disappointed he was leaving with a loss, but knew he was leaving with a good team. Missouri erased the last doubt anyone in America may have about these short on size, but long on heart and guts Tigers.

So often, these games don't live up to the hype. How can they?

But on the rare occasions they do, well, it's beyond words.

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