The Greatest Game Ever Played

It’s such a funny sounding word when you think about it: wow. According to dictionary.com, its origins are Scottish, around 1890, as they would exclaim the phrase in surprise or admiration. It’s strange that such a short word can carry so much weight. And yet, no other word could be uttered as Kansas pulled off one of the most amazing and emotional comebacks in the history, not just of Big 12 basketball, but of all college basketball. By the end of it, my head was pounding, my voice was shot, and I was legitimately tired; and all I was doing was watching the game. But for so long, my enthusiasm was restrained, my optimism cautious, and my hope minimal. Brace yourselves, because this post is a long one.

The crowd was at a fever pitch as tipoff drew near; never before had a KU v. MU game meant so much. The players: pumped. The fans: hostile. The pre-game video brought everyone at Allen Fieldhouse to a feverish and loud anticipation of the start, with decibel levels above 120. As much as I wanted to send Missouri to the SEC with scars from how badly we stepped on their throats, I knew they wouldn’t go that quietly. The game started as I expected: physical, competitive. Kansas, despite poor outside shooting and lazy transition defense, kept the game close for most of the half, but those mistakes caught up to KU, and Missouri couldn’t miss. They opened up a 44-32 lead heading into halftime, and the crowd was demoralized.

KU fans are resilient. No matter the deficit, no matter how little time left, we always find something to hold onto; something to convince us that we will make a comeback. This isn’t exactly unique; a lot, if not all, fan-bases are the exact same. Even after being shocked to the core by the lead Missouri had built, we still felt we could come back. We didn’t know that 12 points was not the worst it would get.

With 16:24 left, Missouri sank a 3-pointer to make it 58-39. The previously shocked crowd was now in stunned silence, trying to comprehend how a comeback would even be possible. Our worst fears were starting to become very real: Missouri was going to sweep the season series over Kansas, and take a Big 12 regular season title to the SEC, laughing all the way. Kansas tried to shrink the deficit, but for a while, every basket they scored was equaled by a Missouri bucket on the other end.

Comebacks arrive in many forms. Sometimes they happen in a flurry of 1-2 punches, erasing a large deficit in a matter of a couple minutes or less. Others are gradual, with the losing team chipping away at a seemingly insurmountable lead over an extended period of time. Kansas’ was the latter. With 10:50 left, Missouri’s lead was still 16. Then it started. By the time Missouri called a timeout with 9:01 remaining, Thomas Robinson made a layup to bring the score to 67-58.

The one thing you can’t do with a double-digit lead is let it sink to single-digits, especially on the road. Then the crowd is brought back into the game, and the losing team suddenly begins to play with renewed confidence and energy. There are countless examples of this in all sports, at all levels.

Even after Frank Haith’s timeout, they couldn’t stop KU’s momentum; it had grown too strong, and had become too fast. Kansas, who had gone 7/15 in the first half from the free throw line, suddenly couldn’t miss: with 6:44 left, Travis Releford made two freebies to make it a five-point game. A little over 30 seconds later, Tyshawn Taylor made two more to make it a three-point game. When Missouri’s Ricardo Ratliffe made a bucket to bring their lead back to five, it was their first field goal in almost seven minutes. The game was now on tilt, each player with a heightened sense of awareness and extra urgency. Every basket was now life or death.

If Thomas Robinson does not win player of the year honors, it will be a travesty. That’s not a diss by any means to Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, a star player in his own right; but Robinson has had the weight of the world on his shoulders this year, and he has carried it like a true All-American. This was proven in the final minute of regulation. Down by three with 30 seconds left, he grabbed a big defensive rebound from a missed three-pointer. Just about everyone in the building thought Kansas would try for a three, but after working it around the perimeter, Elijah Johnson drove the lane, drew attention, and dished to Robinson cutting to the basket along the baseline. The layup went in, and he was undercut by Michael Dixon. The whistle seemed to take forever to be blown; but it was, and Robinson made the biggest free throw of his career. Now the game is tied with ten seconds left. Missouri called timeout to draw up their shot to win.

There have been too many classic plays to count in the world of sports. To rank them would be nearly impossible. Even as Missouri made the inbounds pass, the crowd could sense one of those plays was about to be created. Phil Pressey came around a pick and drove the left side of the lane. There to meet him from the weak side was Thomas Robinson. He spiked Pressey’s layup attempt like it was a volleyball, time ran out, and the game was headed to overtime. It was the Block Heard ‘Round the World, the Immaculate Rejection. Reports from the Fieldhouse stated that decibel levels reached 127.3, setting a new NCAA record.

Much to Missouri’s credit, they did not let Kansas run away with it in overtime. Just the opposite, in fact. Even after Kansas had built a four point lead, Marcus Denmon made a huge three pointer to bring it back within one. In fact, Denmon scored eight of Missouri’s final 11 points. But alas it was not enough.

Tyshawn Taylor missed two crucial free throws in the waning moments of the first matchup between these teams on February 4th, but it’s a funny thing about redemption in sports. Misplay a crucial grounder in baseball, and you get a chance to make up for it with the bat. Drop a pass in football, and you get the ball thrown right back to you on the next play. In Taylor’s case, he got the chance to make up for those misses with free throw opportunities at the end of overtime. Down one with eight seconds left, he had to collect himself after playing 44 of the 45 minutes, and sink at least one to force a tie. He made both, and Denmon didn’t get the game winning shot off in time. Pandemonium ensued. The pure jubilation and release felt among the fans was almost spiritual. No one was a stranger in those final minutes; we were all living for the same purpose in those moments.

That’s when everyone began to realize – or remember – that this was it. Sure, these teams may play each other again in the Big 12 tournament, or in the NCAA tournament, but everyone knows that it won’t be the same. 105 years of tradition had been brought to a close.

I don’t care what anyone says, this is the best rivalry in college basketball, despite the fact that it gets no attention by nationwide sports news outlets. It is the best because it does not depend on how good the teams are. If North Carolina is having a bad season, the game against Duke suddenly doesn’t mean as much. But for all 105 years (longer if you are a history buff; cue John Brown) it has always been fierce and intense. It’s more than dislike with these two teams; it is pure, raw, and seething hatred. A KU fan does not want to just win against Missouri; we want to beat them to a pulp, to kick them while they are down. In this case, something else would have to suffice: utter heartbreak.

Having said that, Kansas should never play Missouri again. If Missouri wanted to keep playing Kansas, they should have stayed in the Big 12. Simply put, I think Missouri will one day say to themselves: we may have made a huge mistake. Maybe that is why this game felt like it meant so much. We all know it takes two to tango, and if Kansas refuses, as they rightly should, then there will be no more games between these two. And it’s sad.

I cannot imagine witnessing a better sporting event as Kansas vs. Missouri at Allen Fieldhouse on February 25th, 2012. The only thing I can imagine that could possibly be better is if the Kansas City Royals were playing Game 7 of the World Series, and in the bottom of the 20th inning, George Brett, with just the right amount of pine tar, came out of retirement to hit the game winning home run. But I highly doubt that. The amount of euphoria I and 16,000 other fans felt as the clock hit zero, the amount of passion showed by Bill Self as he walked off the court, and the sweet elation of a 19-point comeback against the team we hate most will never be equaled. All adjectives that could possibly be used to describe this game all add up to one little three-letter word:

Wow.

This was the photo on the front page of the Lawrence Journal World. I am in the front row, fourth from the right. My little brother Scott, who saved me my seat, is to my right. I will think of this picture for the rest of my days, and smile as I do so.

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2 Responses to The Greatest Game Ever Played

  1. Sean Breslin says:

    Great post, and a great game! Stinks that the series will never be played in the home arenas of the two teams anymore.

    Like

  2. Hadley says:

    Glad you’re back to blogging again. Great piece. And I too would love to see that happen in Game 7 with the Royals. *this will be the year*

    Like

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