LAWRENCE (Feb. 24, 2017)
The relationship between the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri has a tumultuous past.
Their relationship wasn’t just a feud — it was hatred. Pure, unadulterated hatred. But this hostility predated the “Muck Fizzou” and the “Beat kU” t-shirts, as the rivalry between the two states took its roots before the Civil War, existing before the University of Kansas was even founded.
The violence between the two states began in the 1850s as a result of disagreements regarding if Kansas should enter the Union as a free state or a slave state.
Border Ruffians crossed from Missouri into Kansas to stuff ballot boxes in favor of pro-slavery candidates to ensure Kansas’ future as a slave state. After March 30, 1855, bloody battles traversed the state and part of the Civil War’s prelude in Bleeding Kansas was born.
Even though Kansas became a free state in 1861, the bitterness cultivated during Bleeding Kansas festered and turned into one of the deepest-seated sports rivalries America has ever seen.
The rivalry lasted through several conference realignments. The two schools played as members of the Missouri Valley Athletic Association, the Big Six Conference, the Big Seven Conference, the Big Eight Conference and the Big 12 Conference.
But then came November 6, 2011 — the breakup of epic proportions.
It was on that day when it was announced that Missouri would be the 14th member of the Southeastern Conference and would leave the Big 12 Conference behind starting July 2012.
There were two basketball games left between Missouri and Kansas and the two teams were going to make them count.
But it’s not the penultimate game that people remember — it’s the finale.
February 25, 2012.
It’s a date that lives in infamy in both Lawrence and Columbia, Missouri. It’s a date that elicits the most visceral of reactions among the Kansas and Missouri fanbases. The mere mention of the date brings back tears of joy for Jayhawks, while it gives Tigers similar sensations to smelling bleach or eating rotten eggs.
The last Border War matchup was the game of all games. It was winner take all — bragging rights for eternity.
This was it. This was the end.
Everyone who was anyone was there. Even though Allen Fieldhouse only holds 16,300 people, the number of people who say they were there seems to rise as the years pass.
From March 11, 1907 to February 25, 2012, Kansas and Missouri played 267 basketball games, with the Jayhawks holding the ledger 172-95.
But after February 25, 2012, the all-time record wasn’t going to mean anything.
The only thing that mattered: winning the last game.
Part I: The Lead-Up
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The Jayhawks had lost in Columbia a few weeks prior. Like the final game, it was close. In the game, there was a controversial charge called on junior forward Thomas Robinson. Even though Robinson scored 25 points in the game, the Tigers came out on top, winning 74-71.
Robinson: “They got us at their home and we felt like we had some bad calls going down the stretch at their home.”
With both teams ranked in the AP Top 10 and the book closing on the rivalry, the lead-up to the game was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.
On Sunday, Feb. 19 at 8 a.m., six days before the game, lottery was held. Lottery was inside Allen Fieldhouse for the first time, as record numbers of students were in attendance. Associate Athletic Director Jim Marchiony tweeted photos of the enormous crowd, and said that many students showed up over an hour before the lottery start time.
Mike Vernon (then-sophomore/University Daily Kansan columnist): “The build up was insane. I remember lottery being totally packed. We were all in the bleachers in the Fieldhouse. They didn’t normally do it like that. It took forever because there were so many people.”
Kory Carpenter (then-junior/Kansan men’s basketball beat writer): “It was generally 15 to 25 groups at a lottery. There were over 100 there, I think. We filled up the lower student section, close to the KU bench, around the hoop and a few groups above the walkway.”
The lottery lasted over an hour and a half. The next lottery to reach that size came four years later, before the 2016 Kansas vs. Kentucky Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Robinson: “There were people out there for a week camping. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. It’s about to be crazy.’”
Carpenter: “There were guys from the [St. Louis] Post-Dispatch and the [Kansas City] Star there Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. That was definitely different.”
Danny Manning (then-Kansas assistant coach): “That Missouri game was always an emotional, gut-wrenching type of game, regardless of where it was played. You throw the records out the window when rivalry games like that come about.”
The Jayhawks hadn’t lost in Allen Fieldhouse since the year before, when then-No. 10 Texas and J’Covan Brown stunned the No. 2 ranked team, 74-63. That game was only the seventh game Bill Self had dropped in Allen Fieldhouse. Before that, Kansas had won 69 straight games on its home hardwood. With the rarity of home losses paired with the emotional intensity of the game, some predicted that Kansas would win — and even run away with — the game.
Frank Haith (then-Missouri coach) after the game: “I read everything — we weren’t supposed to be in the game.”
Joe Posnanski (then-Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated): “Kansas was better than Missouri, and it was at Allen Fieldhouse and you knew it was going to be a really highly charged atmosphere.”
Carpenter: “I would always write the preview for the Kansan, so I would always predict the final score. I think I had Kansas winning by 16 or 17 points. I thought ‘The crowd will be into it and they’ll win pretty easily.’ Obviously, I was dead wrong there.”
On the day of the game, for students, the doors opened at 1 p.m. Tipoff was two hours later.
Vernon: “We had a group [entry number] in the 100s, and Blake Schuster [Vernon’s friend and former sports editor of the Kansan] snuck in with the fifth group and saved us all seats. We were in the third row because of Schustee, which was awesome. Being in there early, it just felt different. I can’t really describe it beyond that.”
Posnanski: “There was so much emotion everywhere. Everywhere you looked in the Fieldhouse, the crowd, the players, everybody knew this was a historic moment. This was something special. I think people at Kansas were very angry that Missouri was leaving the conference. I think the people at Missouri were angry because they were always angry at Kansas. That’s really the thing that stands out in my mind, was just before it even started you were like, ‘This is crazy how much this is hyped up this whole place is for this game.’”
Carpenter: “I remember the amount of anger, but the attention they gave the Mizzou players, when they’re walking out to maybe get some shots up an hour before the game, maybe one guy at a time. Even the assistant coach or a trainer or anybody, a coordinated effort with the fans, I had never experienced that before. [They were] angry boos. Very unique. There were a handful of Mizzou fans. There was a bigger guy, him and his wife or girlfriend or whoever, they were decked out in all gold and they walked in front of the student section, and they let them have it. He was a good sport about it.”
Vernon: “One of our good friends, Brian Markus, said, in the building, before the game, ‘This is the apex of my being.’ He was like, ‘It’s all downhill after this.’ Him being in the Fieldhouse, looking up, and being like, ‘This is as good as my life will get.’ So ridiculous.”
There were several jabs at Missouri during the pregame pump up videos, including the scene from “The Simpsons” in which Grandpa has 49 stars on his flag, saying, “I’ll be deep in the cold, cold ground before I recognize Missourah.” Even former Kansas forward Scot Pollard went out to the floor to warm up the crowd before tipoff.
Pollard (as quoted by Posnanski): “This goes back to bloodshed!”
Vernon: “We treated [the pregame videos] as like tipoff. It was so loud. We were jumping up and down, people were falling in the bleachers already. It was just crazy. It kept building and building, and it felt like there was this huge bubble.”
Part II: The First Half
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Clark Kellogg (CBS color analyst on the broadcast): “[There’s] an awful lot at stake.”
With music blaring, Kansas redshirt-junior center Jeff Withey and Missouri’s Ricardo Ratliffe made their way to center court. The Jayhawks won the tip, as Withey tapped the ball to Robinson. On that first possession, Kansas immediately turned the ball over.
Robinson stole the ball from Missouri’s Matt Pressey and, in transition, forced his way into the lane for a layup. Pressey fouled Robinson and sent him to the line. He’d make both free throws.
Kansas didn’t make a field goal until 2 1/2 minutes into the game, when Robinson connected on a mid-range jumper. Missouri, on the other hand, was feeding Ratliffe, who had six points before Robinson made that field goal.
Vernon: “The second the game actually started, it felt like [the bubble] had popped. All the air had gone out of the building as soon as KU didn’t get off to a good start.”
Posnanski: “That happens so often in sports, I think, where there is this huge build up and there’s so much emotion. You see it in Super Bowls, you see it in Final Fours and then there’s just this let down. Everybody’s just so pumped up, and then it’s there and it doesn’t quite match. It’s hard to match that emotion. It’s hard to play up to that when there’s just so much pressure and so much feeling about the game.”
Nine seconds of gameplay later, Withey began to limp, favoring his left ankle. He went to the locker room. He missed four minutes of play. Less than 30 seconds after his return, he fouled Marcus Denmon and went straight back to the bench.
Bill Self (Kansas coach) after the game: “It’s unfortunate he turned his ankle right off the bat.”
Posnanski: “That was a huge deal.”
The Jayhawks and Tigers exchanged baskets through the middle of the first half. Neither team had more than a five-point lead. With the score deadlocked at 31-all, Kansas junior guard Elijah Johnson fouled Phil Pressey. He hit both free throws.
He made a three-pointer on the next possession. Missouri by five. Two possessions later, Denmon made a three-pointer. Missouri by eight. The Tigers closed out the half on a 13-1 run and went into the locker room leading by 12. According to the game broadcast, that was the largest halftime home deficit for Kansas since March 3, 2007.
Posnanski: “It was shocking to me when Missouri took the huge lead. That was really, really surprising.”
Robinson: “I had a bad first half. I can’t remember. I don’t think my first half was that good.” [Editor’s note: He shot 4-of-7 from the floor for 10 points, leading the team.]
Carpenter: “Halftime was very weird. It was very quiet in the fieldhouse. The crowd got pretty restless. Nothing was going right at all. People were around us talking about ‘What’s it going to be like to lose to Mizzou the last time we play them in the Fieldhouse?’ It was a very depressed, angry student section.”
Self after the game: “I thought we were just getting our butts handed to us.”
Vernon: “[Halftime] sucked. Everyone was stunned and bummed out.”
Robinson: “We had to try to get the momentum. We had to get the crowd behind us, of course, we were at home.”
Before the second half began, Manning gave Robinson a little pep talk.
Robinson: “He told me ‘Don’t look at the score.’ I know he was telling me not to look at the clock.”
Manning: “I was just trying to give him a little more insight, and help him relax and help us get a win.”
Part III: The Second Half
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Vernon: “Certainly you thought it was gonna get better right out of halftime.”
It didn’t. 14 seconds into the second frame, Phil Pressey drained a deep jumper to put Missouri up 14.
Verne Lundquist (CBS play-by-play announcer, on the broadcast): “That’s not a good start.”
Missouri went on another run, this time 11-4, to start the half. This brought Missouri’s lead to 19 points, the largest deficit of the season for Kansas, according to the broadcast. If Kansas wanted to come back, it had 16:24 remaining to get the job done.
Posnanski: “Here I was for what seemed to be this epic moment, and Missouri came in and seemed to wipe Kansas away. Nineteen [point leads] in college basketball? The game is over.”
Vernon: “I couldn’t believe this was happening. Nineteen was just that point where, KU is screwed. It was just shocking. Everyone was so down. No one was looking at each other. We were resorting to that time where people switch seats and sit next to someone different, that type of stuff is going on. Even then, this is so bad. It was stunning.”
Self, after the game: “It felt like someone just jumped us and ran away.”
After Denmon drained a three-pointer to make the score 58-39, Johnson made a three-pointer of his own. Less a minute of game time later, he made another. Robinson dropped an inside-the-paint jumper soon after, cutting the Tiger lead to 11.
Carpenter: “You have that sense of security [in Allen Fieldhouse], whatever happens, they’re gonna come back, hit a crazy shot or get a turnover when they need it.”
Vernon: “One of the things about KU at the Fieldhouse, you always expect the run to come.”
Kansas and Missouri exchanged turnovers, and Missouri’s Michael Dixon went on a five-point run of his own to put the Tigers back up by 16. Then, Kansas redshirt-senior guard Conner Teahan drilled his third-straight three-pointer.
Vernon: “Here comes Conner Teahan.”
Posnanski: “Conner Teahan. That’s what it was coming down to. He was just going crazy from three-point range.”
Missouri, with back-to-back layups by Denmon and Kim English, brought its lead back up to 16. It wouldn’t last long. Kansas junior forward Kevin Young beelined from the baseline to hammer down his second dunk of the game.
Vernon: “The whole building woke back up. Everyone seemed to figure it out at once that KU was still in the game.”
On Kansas’ next possession, Teahan connected on his fourth-straight three-pointer to bring Kansas within 11.
Kellogg, on the broadcast: “This kid is a terrific shooter. He’s found his stroke. His Jayhawk teammates need him.”
Robinson: “He hit two big ones we needed. I remember those. That’s what put us back in it. OK, this is a game now. He was huge that day.”
Posnanski: “To make four in a row like that to bring them back, it was pretty incredible.”
Vernon: “The Fieldhouse started to get loud. I think it’s so true, all of a sudden, it didn’t seem so insurmountable.”
One minute and a half later, Robinson grabbed an offensive rebound and got the putback to get Kansas within single digits.
Carpenter: “Once they got within 10, I had a good feeling.”
Vernon: “Once they started to close the gap, they were making every free throw. Once it became possible like that, once the fouls started building up, KU was being really aggressive. They kept getting to the line, they kept making their free throws. And everyone knew what was happening.”
Tyshawn Taylor (then-Kansas senior guard) after the game: “When we started coming back, (the crowd) was the best I’ve ever seen it.”
English, after the game: “The atmosphere had nothing to do with it.”
With 7:12 remaining, Robinson muscled his way to the line. His free throws cut the lead to eight and seven. On the next Kansas possession, redshirt-junior guard Travis Releford was fouled and sent to the line. His free throws chipped at the lead even more, bringing it down to six and five. Taylor found himself at the line on the ensuing possession. His made free throws made it a one-possession game.
Denmon, after the game: “When you’re living at the free throw line, you’re scoring while the clock is stopped, it’s easy to chip the lead away.”
Posnanski: “At that point, it was just madness. You were just watching it. Now you have no idea what’s gonna happen.”
Vernon: “You’re jumping up and down. At one point, my buddy was going so crazy, it knocked both him and I down, fell backwards and we took out like three rows of people in the midst of the comeback and no one cared. It was just the hazard of being in the student section that game. It was absolutely insane.”
Two minutes and 30 seconds remaining. Teahan dishes a pass from outside the arc to Robinson in the paint. It’s a one-point game.
Robinson: “The crazy thing is, I always tell Tyshawn, I didn’t even know we even came back until 2 1/2 minutes left. And then it hit me like, ‘Oh shit. We might win this game.’”
On Missouri’s next possession, Denmon drove home a layup to give Missouri a three-point lead. Then, English fouled Releford, who made both free throws to cut it back to a one-point lead. Missouri brought it back to a three-point lead after Robinson fouled Ratliffe with 1:31 remaining.
Part IV: The Final 25.9 Seconds
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As Allen Fieldhouse erupted in chants of “Let’s go, Jayhawks,” Teahan inbounded the ball near half court with 25.9 seconds remaining. He passed to Johnson. Johnson dribbled to the corner and passed to Taylor. Taylor passed the ball back to Johnson, who quickly dished it to Robinson. Robinson went straight up, entangled with Dixon. As Robinson made a loud thud, falling to the ground, the referee blew the whistle and the ball made half of a rotation around the rim and fell through the net. Robinson was going to the line with the possibility to tie the game.
Dixon, after the game: “My hand was on top of the ball, and he caught it and it went through my hand. And I got the foul.”
Haith, after the game: I want to see what happened on that foul.”
Robinson: “I got fouled and [laughs] I just remember [thinking] ‘I can’t lose this game. I can’t miss this free throw. I can’t be the person that missed a free throw in the last game between Missouri and Kansas.’ I settled down for a quick second. I hit the free throw.”
Lundquist, on the broadcast: “We’re tied.”
Self, after the game: “That’s what the best players do. They make plays with the game on the line.”
Vernon: “Once he made that, it was like, ‘Oh my God this is complete,’ which is totally not accurate. But that’s what the feeling was.”
Posnanski: “I’ve never quite been in a place the moment that shot goes in, every single person in the place goes crazy.”
Vernon: “[Missouri] calls a timeout. ‘Thunderstruck’ is playing. It’s burned into my memory. Everyone just tried to be as loud as possible. Once the deficit was close and once it was tied, it just felt that there was no way Mizzou was winning that game. After that being such an emotional swing, it’s just not. It’s not gonna happen.”
10.1 seconds remaining. Denmon inbounded the ball to Phil Pressey, who ran around Johnson, looking to attack the rim on the left side. Robinson flies in from the right, winds up with his right hand and swats the ball directly to Releford.
Manning: “I just remember him going up and making a hell of a block. And the place was going crazy. And we got to play a little bit longer.”
Vernon: “Everyone waited for maybe a second, ‘Did they call a foul?’ ‘Nope,’ and the place erupted.”
Posnanski: “There would be Missouri fans that would say that he got fouled.”
Denmon, after the game: “Phil got in the lane. We know that we’re on the road. We probably wouldn’t get a call. We were just trying to get a clean look at the basket. I thought that Phil might have been getting bumped into the lane and Thomas came and blocked to send it to overtime.”
Carpenter: “It hit 127 decibels at the moment he blocked the shot. My ear was ringing for at least a day or two afterward. It was kinda weird.”
Posnanski: “That was the loudest moment. That was the apex of the whole game, as far as the crowd was. Inside that place, and now in your mind, you’re thinking, they were just down 19 just a few minutes ago.”
Robinson: “I can’t remember exactly what happened before the block. I got to the rim and I was scared because, he came and tried to attack me, basically. Some people would say it’s a foul, but coach Self always tells us at the end of the game, they’re gonna swallow their whistles basically. I was just thinking ‘I gotta go try and get the block.’ And I got it, and I just remember the place going crazy. I went crazy. The whole team was going crazy. It was bananas.”
English, after the game: “We had the game in our hands. We gave them a gift.”
Denmon, after the game: “We had ample opportunities to close this game and we just couldn’t do it.”
Part V: Overtime
Vernon: “Then they started queuing up the overtime videos and it was just back to what it was like before the beginning of the game. Except for, you had already thought the thing was lost. Now, it was kinda like, double all of that in terms of emotion and everyone is exhausted. Blake had pneumonia and was gonna faint.”
Robinson: “Once we got it to overtime, we were going to take it from there.”
Withey tipped the ball at the beginning of the game, but with his ankle, Self asked if he could do it again.
Self, after the game: “He gave me, ‘Uhhh.’ I said. ‘OK, you just answered my question.’ I don’t think he thought he could do it. I knew he couldn’t run.”
Robinson met Ratliffe at center court. Kansas won the tip, with Robinson tapping the ball to Johnson. After a series of passes between Johnson and Taylor, Taylor passed the ball to Teahan. Teahan pump faked, and then passed the ball inside to Releford. Releford dished it back out to Taylor, who was wide open for a three-point look.
Vernon: “I remember that first possession. Tyshawn made that three and we lost it.”
Carpenter: “Once Tyshawn hit that three ... We were all saying the game was over.”
Robinson: “Tyshawn just took over once overtime came. I was pretty confident that we had it. We came back down by 19. The momentum was going our way the whole time.”
Vernon: “Overtime was just back and forth. Denmon made huge shots. I keep saying it was over and it was wrong, but that’s what the feeling was. It’s so true.” [Editor’s note: Denmon shot 3-of-3 in overtime for eight points.]
With 39 seconds remaining, Denmon flushed a contested three-pointer over Taylor to give Missouri a one-point lead.
Carpenter: “I’d take Marcus Denmon on my team any day. The guy was a stud.”
With 28 seconds remaining, Johnson assisted to Taylor running down the baseline for a dunk to give Kansas a one-point lead. Denmon would answer with a jumper of his own. 20 seconds later, Phil Pressey had his fifth foul on Taylor. Taylor made both free throws.
Dixon brought the ball up the court for the last possession. With a slow dribble, he crossed half court with five seconds remaining.
Kellogg, on the broadcast: “You gotta go faster than this.”
Robinson: “I was praying [Denmon] didn’t get the ball.”
Carpenter: “People were screaming, ‘Don’t give it to Denmon. Don’t give it to Denmon.’”
Dixon passed the ball to Denmon.
Vernon: “Everyone could see the lights go off with the ball still in his hand. We knew the game was over.”
Robinson: “He shot at the end. He made it. But it was too late.”
Teahan, after the game: “Just the whole situation combined made it one of the best victories I’ve been a part of.”
Robinson: “That was the loudest I ever heard it. I was screaming at the top of my lungs and I couldn’t hear myself. My teammates were on the scorer’s table. Coach Self was jumping around. It was crazy. People running towards me, the fans were going bananas. It was amazing.”
Self, after the game: “That couldn’t have been scripted a lot better for us. I’m not the most emotional guy, but that’s about as good as it gets.”
Vernon: “I remember being at [Bullwinkles Bar] after the game watching highlights. No one knew that [Denmon] actually made that shot, even though we were all at the game. None of us knew that the shot went in. No one freaking knew. This would have been a totally different story. It would have been horrible.”
Carpenter: “Everybody was looking at Self. He was going nuts. I had never seen Self that animated after a game by any means. I know he definitely didn’t like Mizzou at that point, with them going to the SEC. He was definitely the most animated I’ve seen him. By a long stretch.”
Vernon: “It was the happiest place on earth. It really was Disneyland for that day. In that moment, everyone was going crazy, hugging. the people around you became your best friends and you went through this crazy experience with them. For a few hours, we were best friends.”
Carpenter: ”There was lots of hugging, high-fiving strangers. Not to sound cliche, but you could tell people were, whoever they could find, hugging, high-fiving, kind of going nuts. Nobody really left. I know people wait a decent amount of time after wins, but nobody left. They didn’t want to leave, which I understood completely. They wanted to soak it all in.”
Vernon: “No one left after the game. everyone stayed. There was a party, it felt like 20 minutes but I’m sure it wasn’t that long, the band played an extra song. Everyone was so happy.”
Posnanski: “[The rivalry] just one of those things that ended and it was sad that it couldn’t go on, but if it had to end, that’s the right way is with an overtime game in Allen Fieldhouse with everybody going out of their minds. That’s the right way for it to end.”
Robinson: “Everybody in Kansas is gonna remember us forever. No one is ever going to forget this game. They were like this could be the best game as far as conference [play]. I think that gave us the championship too for the conference. [Editor’s note: It did.] There was a lot on that game. I know for sure that that’s one of the most memorable games at Kansas. I knew that for sure right after the buzzer. I didn’t watch every single game played at this University, but I knew for sure this would be up there.”
All interviews for this story were done exclusively with the Kansan, unless otherwise specified.