Commentary

Kansas soaks it all in after epic rally

Originally Published: February 25, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Outside Allen Fieldhouse, nearly an hour after the most memorable game in the venue's storied history, a black chartered bus with gold stripes and a Show-Me-State license plate idled in the parking lot.

One by one, each member of the Missouri Tigers basketball team walked past armed security guards and made his way toward the door. Matt Pressey stopped and signed items for autograph seekers, Michael Dixon hid his face beneath a gray hoodie and Marcus Denmon slouched in his seat as he peered through a tinted window.

[+] EnlargeMichael Dixon
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerMissouri's dejection was apparent after blowing a 19-point lead against the hated Jayhawks.

Outside, first-year coach Frank Haith paced back and forth across the sidewalk, staring at the ground as he talked on his cell phone following his team's 87-86 overtime loss to Kansas. Eventually, the luggage compartment was shut. The bus engine gurgled and Haith climbed aboard.

At 6:27 p.m. CT, the Border War was over.

The driver's foot pressed a pedal and the Missouri Tigers were whisked away from Allen Fieldhouse and Lawrence.

Forever.

"This may be the last time we ever play," Haith said of the Tigers and Jayhawks. "It's sad. I just don't understand it."

Unfortunate as it may be, as inexcusable as it is that the 105-year feud has come to an end, at least it happened like this. At least the final regular-season contest between Kansas and Missouri was the most thrilling one -- a 2-hour-and-24-minute spine-tingler that ended with KU coach Bill Self pumping his fists at midcourt like a boxer in the center of a ring after a title fight.

Sweat beads dotted Self's forehead. His face was red with exuberance.

"This was as exciting of a game as I've ever been a part of," said Self, who has indicated he has no interest in continuing a series with the Tigers when they move to the SEC. "It wouldn't have been a disgrace to lose to a good team, but it's Missouri. You've got to win."

The Jayhawks nearly didn't.

Kansas trailed by as many as 19 points early in the second half before staging the gutsiest -- and biggest -- second-half comeback the program has ever seen in Lawrence. A pair of free throws by point guard Tyshawn Taylor with eight seconds left in overtime catapulted the Jayhawks to victory.

Minutes earlier, Wooden Award candidate Thomas Robinson helped force the extra period with a three-point play that tied the score 75-75 with 16.1 seconds left. Missouri guard Phil Pressey broke free for a game-winning layup attempt as time expired, but Robinson blocked it as the crowd went berserk.

"We're never going to be a part of something as big as this game was tonight," said Robinson, who finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds.

[+] EnlargeKansas fans
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerThe KU fans were certainly well-prepared for their rival Tigers, who are moving to the SEC next season.

The hype leading up to the final edition of the Border War was as intense as it's ever been. All week long, fans of both teams bickered back and forth on message boards and radio call-in shows. Former players from both schools talked trash on Twitter. Forty-eight hours before tipoff, Self told reporters he expected the game-day crowd to be as emotional and intense as Allen Fieldhouse has ever seen.

The atmosphere didn't disappoint.

Ushers and elderly fans wore neon ear plugs, as the noise level reportedly rose to 120 decibels, which is comparable to the sound of a jet taking off less than 100 yards away. Videos poking fun at the Tigers played before the game and during timeouts. In the stands, former KU greats such as Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison and Marcus and Markieff Morris watched as Kansas attempted to claim its eighth straight Big 12 title -- while also avenging a 74-71 loss to Missouri earlier this season.

"It's so loud," said Dixon, who scored 17 points for Missouri. "When they scored a basket, it felt like they scored 10 baskets."

Missouri did its best to silence the noise early. So poised and efficient were the Tigers that it was almost stunning. Denmon swished six 3-pointers, forward Ricardo Ratliffe broke free for easy baskets down low and Pressey, the hiccup-quick point guard, zipped through Kansas' defense on his way to 12 assists.

The performance and mental toughness was a yet another testament to the accolade-worthy coaching job done this season by Haith, whose team played as well as any opponent KU has faced at Allen Fieldhouse in recent memory.

Kansas has won 90 of its past 91 games at home, but none of that seemed to matter to Missouri.

"I read everything that said we weren't supposed to be in the game," said Haith, whose team had just 10 turnovers and out-rebounded the bigger, stronger Jayhawks.

"We came in here and competed and it went down to the wire. We had every chance to win the game and probably should have won the game. Kansas probably feels like they should've won it at our place."

Indeed, Missouri used an 11-0, game-ending scoring run to eke out a victory over KU on Feb. 4 in Columbia. On Saturday, it was the Jayhawks who came through with the late-game heroics. Kansas shot 52 percent after intermission but trailed the entire second half until Robinson's three-point play -- he was fouled under the basket by Dixon -- tied it with 16 seconds left in regulation.

When Taylor opened the extra period with a 3-pointer, it marked the first time Kansas had led since the game's opening minutes.

"We just played awful [early] and they played fabulous," Self said. "For our guys to hang in there and grind it out and for this building to give us the juice and energy we needed -- it was unbelievable.

[+] EnlargeTyshawn Taylor
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesTyshawn Taylor helped KU win at least a share of its eight straight Big 12 regular-season title.

"The pressure was on us today. It wasn't on Missouri."

No one felt the heat quite like Taylor, who committed some costly turnovers and missed a pair of free throws in the final moments of KU's loss to the Tigers earlier this month.

It was only fitting, then, that Taylor ended up with the ball in his hands after Denmon had given the Tigers a 86-85 lead on a baseline jumper with 12 seconds left in overtime. Taylor, who is one of the fastest players in the country with the ball in his hands, zoomed down the court and into the lane, where he was fouled by Pressey.

Watching from the stands, Taylor's mother, Jeanell, covered her eyes and then peeked through her fingers as her son stepped to the line. She breathed a sigh of relief after Taylor swished his first foul shot. And after he made the second one?

"I broke down and cried," Jeanell said. "That's my baby."

Taylor chuckled as Jeanell told the story.

"Can you believe her?" he said. "Drama queen."

Deep down, though, Taylor understood his mom's emotion and the magnitude of the moment. The New Jersey native arrived in Kansas in the summer of 2008 knowing nothing about the Kansas-Mizzou rivalry.

But four years later, there he stood Saturday, one of the heroes of the most riveting Border War game ever.

And probably the last one, too.

"The games may be over," Taylor said. "But the rivalry isn't. It will always exist."

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.