basketball Edit

Looking back at the last basketball Border War in Columbia

For 106 straight years the Kansas Jayhawks played basketball in Columbia, Mo. From 1907 to 2012, the Jayhawk basketball team would make the two-and-a-half hour trip East. Some years they did it twice. But through two World Wars and five different conferences, the Jayhawks and the Tigers always played a game in Columbia. They played 268 times, 121 of them on Mizzou’s campus.

Kansas hasn’t made the trip in more than ten years. It will do so this Saturday when the 6th-ranked Jayhawks come to town hoping to hand the Tigers their first loss in ten games under Dennis Gates. Saturday’s game is sold out and likely to feature an atmosphere that hasn’t been seen in Mizzou Arena since the last time the Jayhawks were here.

That was February 4, 2012. Missouri was the nation’s fourth-ranked team, Kansas was No. 8. By the end of the night, Marcus Denmon would author his signature performance and forever etch his name alongside the greats in Mizzou history. Exactly three weeks later, Kansas would erase a 19-point second half deficit in Allen Fieldhouse to win 87-86 on its way to the Big 12 regular season title. Two weeks after that, the Tigers would win the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City and exit stage left for the Southeastern Conference.

It took ten years of healing for the hurt feelings to go away enough for the Tigers and Jayhawks to renew what was once one of college basketball’s greatest rivalries. The first game in the series was supposed to be played in Kansas City two years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic altered those plans. Mizzou took a 102-65 beating in Lawrence last year in the first game of a six-year series. Saturday marks the first time Mizzou and Kansas will play in Columbia since that February evening now nearly 11 years ago. We talked to players and coaches on both sides of that game as the Border War makes its way back to the Show-Me State.

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Missouri came into the game 7-2 in Big 12 play. The Tigers had lost at Kansas State and Oklahoma State, but had beaten Texas in Austin five days prior to run their record on the season to 20-2. They had zoomed up the national polls, from unranked at the beginning of the year to No. 4 by the morning of February 4. The Jayhawks had lost non-conference games to Kentucky, Duke and Davidson, but had lost just once, to Iowa State in Ames, in nine Big 12 games. The winner would take the de facto Big 12 lead and the inside track to a national No. 1 seed with eight games left on the schedule.

It was the first game Frank Haith had coached against Kansas. The Tigers’ first-year coach, who had weathered the storm of frustration that he was hired followed by uncertainty about his job after he was implicated in a Yahoo! Sports story about improprieties at Miami, was on his way to national coach of the year honors. He had been around some rivalries. He’d been an assistant at Texas, which had rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M. When he was the Hurricanes’ boss, Miami and Florida State considered themselves rivals on the court.

But this was different. Equipment manager Kit Lisauskus gave Haith a copy of The Outlaw Josey Wales the night before the game.

“I’ve seen the movie but (he told me), ‘I want you to understand the hatred,’” Haith said. “It was unbelievable. It was pure dislike for each other.”

The game was in the national spotlight. ESPN’s College Game Day did its show live on Norm Stewart Court that morning, building the anticipation for the prime-time broadcast. The pregame featured Tigers Kim English and Michael Dixon, Jr. doing a segment with Holly Rowe. It was a day-long lesson in how to handle the pressure of a big-time game. Dixon had never beaten Kansas in four tries. He remembers believing that morning when he woke up that this would be the night.

“When me and Kim did Game Day we were so locked in on winning, we honestly couldn’t wait to get to our pregame nap routine—well, me at least,” Dixon, now playing professionally in Beirut, Lebanon, said. “I knew we played at 8 or 9 that day and didn’t want to waste too much energy being up because of the adrenaline. Those games take a lot out of everyone playing.”

“The game plan is big,” Phil Pressey, now a GA for Dennis Gates at Mizzou, said. “But the most important thing is to focus in, the will to be able to manage the high emotions. Because you're going to go up like we did at Kansas. You're going to be down like we were here. And to be able to, you know, stay even keel is the important factor.”

Kansas led by as much as six in the first half. Missouri used a 9-0 run to go up seven with just 1:27 to go before the break. A Tyshawn Taylor layup made it 39-34 Tigers with 46 seconds left and that would be the score at halftime.

Taylor, now the coach at Free State High School in Lawrence, knew that players on both teams had that season’s games between the Tigers and Jayhawks circled. They always did, but the fact it was Mizzou’s final season before going to the SEC and the fact they were volleying the conference lead between them with Baylor gave the 2012 version of the rivalry a little extra spice.

“We enjoyed it and know how competitive it was and know how much it got our juices flowing to play against Missouri,” Taylor said in a phone interview last week. “I just felt like we elevated their game and vice versa. Going to play against Phil Pressey was a matchup that I circled.

“There’s a mutual respect there for the game, but when we get on the court I want to rip his head off.”

Taylor scored 21 points and played 38 minutes at Mizzou in 2012
Taylor scored 21 points and played 38 minutes at Mizzou in 2012 (AP Images)

Taylor and the Jayhawks would nearly do so early in the second half. After five points from English, Mizzou led 44-39. But Kansas scored the next eight to take a three-point lead. Missouri would tie it a couple of times, but Kansas kept answering.

“Credit Kansas, they kind of stuck it to us the beginning of the second half,” Haith, now an assistant to Penny Hardaway at Memphis, said.

A Taylor dunk put the Jayhawks up 71-63 with 3:25 to play. It was the biggest lead of the game for either team.

“That’s when i started to worry,” Dixon said.

That dunk came 15 seconds after the game’s final TV timeout. Haith remembers vividly what happened in the Missouri huddle during that break.

“Marcus was yelling at me during the timeout,” Haith said. “He’s like ‘Coach get me the ball.’ I said ‘Marcus, would you calm down?’

“He goes, ‘You don’t understand I got (Connor) Teahan on me.’”

Haith admits to cleaning up the language of the exchange. Denmon demanded the ball.

“Marcus, he’s a killer man,” Pressey said. “That moment right there, it already happened like every day in practice in the summers. He had that same mindset from the start.”

Following the Taylor dunk, Denmon actually missed a three-pointer with 2:46 to go. It was his sixth miss of the day from the floor. It would also be his last.

“I had been playing with Marcus since we were 11 years old,” Dixon said. “I knew he could make something special happen.”

Haith listened to Denmon. He ran a play to get his leading scorer and All-Big 12 guard the ball on the right wing. Denmon responded, driving baseline, making a layup and drawing a foul on the Jayhawks’ star big man, Thomas Robinson. The free throw made it 71-66 with 2:07 to play. Robinson’s fourth foul would come on the ensuing Kansas possession, a charge drawn by Missouri center Steve Moore. Kansas players and fans thought it should have been a blocking foul, but the possible home cooking would even itself out three weeks later regardless.

On Mizzou’s next possession, Denmon came off a screen at the top of the key with Teahan trailing. Dixon fed him the ball and Denmon’s three was on target. Kansas 71, Mizzou 69 with 90 seconds to play. On television, Dick Vitale lost his mind. "How big has Denmon been?"

“Defense was right there and he was just cold-blooded,” Haith said.

Bill Self called a timeout after that one. Denmon was still barking in the Tigers’ huddle.

“As a head coach your mind is always floating about where do I want to go, who do you want taking the shot,” Haith said. “I told Marcus because he was so emphatic about it, ‘would you just calm down? Just relax, I got you.’”

With 1:17 left, Matt Pressey stole the ball from Taylor. Denmon handled the ball for most of the next possession. As he dribbled from the top of the key toward the left wing, he shoveled the ball to Matt Pressey, who immediately passed it back to Denmon cutting to the left corner. Denmon actually hesitated slightly as he rose up with Teahan trying to catch up. It didn’t matter. The three went down. Nine points in a minute and 11 seconds had turned a 71-63 deficit into a 72-71 lead.

“Those moments, those three shots, most incredible (two minutes) I’ve ever been involved with,” Haith said.

“Gotta be number one. Yeah, for me, you know, that has to be number one,” Phil Pressey said. “That team we had, it was just so close. The camaraderie we had there was special. So whenever one of your teammates pulls off his best performance like that, you know, it's like it's teamwork. You know, you feel like his special moment was everybody’s.”

Taylor would miss two free throws, Dixon would hit two and Elijah Johnson would miss a last-second three. Missouri scored the final 11 points to win 74-71. And while everybody contributed, it is Denmon, authoring probably the most memorable 71 seconds of Missouri basketball in the last 28 years, that everyone remembers.

“I’m not comparing Marcus to Steph Curry, but the zone he was in in those times is Steph Curry-like,” Taylor said. “Anywhere he catches the ball he’s able to score from.

“You have to respect him as soon as he touches the ball. Him being in those zones completely messes up our defensive principles.

“I could clearly see Marcus Denmon playing his best against us…I don’t know if that was just an accident or if he circled those games. He barely missed a shot.”

Officially, Denmon finished 10-for-16 with a game-high 29 points. It was the nine in 71 seconds that remains one of the historic highlights of Missouri basketball.

“He’ll tell you these are games that are going to solidify what type of player I was at Missouri,” Taylor said. “It’s that type of thing that gets your name hung in the rafters.”

Denmon scored 29 on Kansas, including nine straight to give Missouri the lead
Denmon scored 29 on Kansas, including nine straight to give Missouri the lead (Pinterest)

When the clock hit 0:00, Missouri had a win over its rival and the Big 12 lead. All 15,061 in attendance knew at the time it might be the last chance they ever had to storm the court after beating the hated Jayhawks. The players knew it too. So they stopped it. Led by English, the Tigers went to the front of the student section and motioned for them to stay in their seats.

“He was a head coach before he was a head coach,” Pressey said of English, who is in his second season leading George Mason’s program.

“We talked about it,” Haith said. “I don’t think that group ever thought they were going to lose a game. They felt like going into the game we were going to do enough to win.”

They didn’t all want the students to stay put. Dixon said he expected to win the game and thought Missouri was the better team, but he wanted bedlam.

“I wanted the whole arena to rush the court,” Dixon said. “We knew we were better, but Missouri hadn’t had a team that you could really say was better than Kansas up until that point. Who cares, rush the floor! My cousins and brother spilled onto the court. I tried to chest bump Phil and ended up jumping and catapulting him to the floor. It was an indescribable feeling. I felt horrible even when Elijah shot that last shot. Once he missed, I felt like I lost ten pounds.”

The win moved Mizzou to 21-2. It put the Tigers atop the conference standings, a spot they would hold until three weeks later when the Jayhawks returned the favor in Allen Fieldhouse in an 87-86 overtime win. Taylor called that game the most memorable of his career…despite the fact he would play in the national championship just more than a month later.

“We never had a chance in that national championship game,” he said. “Me personally, as a senior, I was happy even with a loss. They were a better team. Us even being in that position, I was happy to end my career like that. I would not have been happy sharing the Big 12 with (Missouri) that year, would not have been happy losing two conference games to them that year.”

“It was so meaningful,” Haith said. “It’s a rivalry game and the way the game was played by both teams, it was really good basketball. Our (home) game was more defense probably. Up there it was high level, just really good basketball, not many turnovers.”

Dixon scored 15 points in the win over Kansas
Dixon scored 15 points in the win over Kansas (Yahoo! Sports)

Round three was scheduled for Saturday, March 10 in the Sprint Center. The Jayhawks were the one seed and the Tigers were the two seed and they would meet for the Big 12 tournament championship in the city that serves as ground zero for the rivalry. Kansas City literally straddles the state line, part of it on both sides of the border. What better way to end it, with Missouri leaving the league and 106 consecutive years of basketball being put aside for dollar signs and pride, than a rubber match with one last conference tournament title on the line?

Then Baylor beat Kansas in the tournament semifinals.

Bill Self is an actual friend of mine and my father’s,” Dixon said. “He will probably get mad or disagree with this, but I think they lost on purpose to Baylor to avoid that game because we were really the revolutionary team. In 2012 we were playing how everyone plays today. They did not want any part of us in Kansas City. Nobody did. We would have smoked them if there was a third game.”

Missouri would beat the Bears for the second time that year, 90-75, in the title game. In some ways, it seemed anti-climactic. But in hindsight, maybe it was the perfect ending. Each team won an incredible game on its home court with a second-half comeback. Each benefitted from a call that could easily have gone the other way in the final minute (even Taylor admits the no-call on Robinson in Lawrence was “questionable”). The final year of the Border War ended up tied and we were all left to wonder, who would have won that last game? Who really was better?

“I think we would have enjoyed playing them,” Taylor said. “We definitely thought we were a better team. I’m sure they thought the same thing.”

“At that time I didn’t really care,” Haith said. “Years later I’m kind of glad the way it ended. That was God’s plan. Both of us share part of that title.”

Nearly 11 years later, Kansas is coming back to Columbia. It’s not the same. It will never be exactly the same.

“I mean Dajuan Harris is from Columbia so it will be a huge game for him, but do the other Kansas players really know what they are getting into or the magnitude of the rivalry?” Dixon wondered. “Missouri players, also, for that matter. It’s good for basketball for Kansas and Mizzou to play. Hopefully it’s a great game.”

“The games used to mean a little bit more,” Taylor said. “Beating them meant winning the Big 12 or losing it. The games meant so much more back then than I feel like they will now.”

It's been more than ten years.

"They win what just might have been the last game ever between these two schools in this building," ESPN's Dan Shulman said as Missouri players climbed into the student section to celebrate back in 2011.

Turns out, it wasn't. It might not matter quite as much. But it still matters. Because it’s Kansas and Missouri. That always matters. It’s mattered since the Civil War.

“The first game, I remember people telling me you ain’t seen anything yet,” Haith said. “They were right. There’s nothing like the KU-Mizzou game.”

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