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KANSAS CITY--All season long, Missouri has heard the doubts. How could the Tigers compete with bigger teams? How can they keep shooting this well? How can they win with seven players? How are they this good?
Finally, after a 90-75 win over Baylor to lock up the Big 12 championship on Sunday, there are no more questions.
"I think they're all pretty much answered," Michael Dixon Jr. said.
"I think every question had been answered twenty games ago," Marcus Denmon said. "We're 30 and 4 now. Should be a one seed headed to the NCAA Tournament and Big 12 champs."
It was Denmon who got this team started on the right note. Playing on five hours of sleep and an ankle that needed a pain-killing shot, he got a steal leading to Missouri's first basket. He had seven points as Missouri took an eight-point lead to the first media timeout and 11 of his 15 before halftime.
"That happened like the third play (last night) and I didn't think it was that bad. I kept trying to play, I kept trying to play. I couldn't cut, I couldn't stop when I wanted to," Denmon said. "I don't even really know how I played on it because when the game was over and we got back here to do media, I tried to get up and shower and I couldn't really walk on it. I guess it was just my adrenaline. I stayed up till like three this morning getting treatment on it, woke up at eight getting treatment on it."
Denmon did not score a point for the first 19 minutes and ten seconds of the second half, but he did not need to. His teammates picked up the slack. Kim English hit big shot after big shot, finishing the game 6-for-10 and the tournament 26-for-33. Dixon knocked down ten of eleven free throws and scored 17. Matt Pressey scored five points on back-to-back possessions to stretch Missouri's lead to 14. Ricardo Ratliffe attacked Baylor's bigger post players relentlessly for 15 points and five rebounds. But with 4:06 to play, Ratliffe picked up his fifth foul and had to watch the rest from the bench.
"It seemed like it was a week," Ratliffe said of the final 246 seconds. "I had faith because I know when Steve's in there you can trust him to all the little things. Rebound, block shots, dive on the floor, as you saw him do all that in probably one play. I was just out there trying to be the biggest cheerleader I can."
Ratliffe's minutes in a chair were not without tension. Baylor cut the lead to 77-72 with 2:20 still to play, thanks in part to back-to-back misses on the front end of one-and-ones by Phil Pressey. The Bears then intentionally fouled Pressey at midcourt on the Tigers' next possession, hoping another miss would give them a chance to make it a one possession game.
"Teams are going to try to test guys on our team who they feel like are not going to knock shots down," Matt Pressey said of his younger brother.
But Phil stepped to the line and made both, starting an 8-0 Missouri run that salted the game away.
"I've seen Phil make millions of free throws," Dixon said. "It's just a mental thing. I know Phil's confident when he goes to the free throw line."
The Tigers continued a season-long trend by making nine of their last ten free throws. Mizzou is shooting better than 81% from the line in the final four minutes of the game this year. And with that, the Tigers exited Kansas City, and the Big 12, with the conference title.
"Big 12 tournament champions," Ratliffe said. "We're going out of the conference on the highest note that's possible."
Game at a Glance
Player of game… As they have all season, each of the seven Tigers made plays critical to the win. In a balanced effort, we give this award to the player of the tournament. Kim English scored 19 points, giving him a school record 69 for the three-day event and earning him a Most Outstanding Player trophy which he gave to his father.
Play of game… With just more than 11 minutes to play, English stripped the ball down low and Michael Dixon Jr. picked it up. Dixon streaked to the other end, made a layup and drew the foul. The three point play put the Tigers up 64-52. As they have all season long, Missouri found an answer for every Baylor push.
Number of the day… 1. The number of wins Missouri needs in the NCAA Tournament to tie the single-season school record set in 2008-09.
It was over when… Steve Moore provided the exclamation point. Any comeback hopes were already unrealistic, but when Mizzou's least heralded player threw one down on an assist from Denmon, Missouri knew its second Big 12 tournament title was secure.
I was hoping Acy was going to jump," Ratliffe said. "I love when he does attack the rim. Nobody's going to jump because he's such a big and strong guy. If they do jump with him, then they're just going to get dunked on."
Quotable… "I can't really explain it. Best feeling ever. This is my best win of my life and I'm just glad to be a part of it." --Phil Pressey on the win
Up Next Missouri will find out its NCAA Tournament path at 5:00 on Sunday. Fans are welcome at Mizzou Arena beginning at 4 p.m. to watch the show live with the Tigers.
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