COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The end of a furious and frenetic Border Showdown perhaps the last edition held at Mizzou Arena for a good while marked the latest twist in a compelling Big 12 Conference race and the growth of a program under its surprising first-year coach. Kansas junior guard Elijah Johnson's 3-point attempt bounced to the side of the rim as the horn sounded, and screams from Missouri's student section roared feet away.
But the response that followed revealed the Tigers have greater goals in mind than an early February victory over their archrival. In the moments after No. 4 Missouri clinched a 74-71 triumph over No. 8 Kansas on Saturday night, the Tigers' Kim English and Marcus Denmon waved to Missouri students and pleaded with them to remain where they stood. White confetti tumbled from the ceiling, but most of the charged fans wearing gold respected the senior leaders' wishes not to rush the court.
This Missouri team, English said later, does not enter games expecting to lose. This Missouri team, English said, prepares to win, so no reaction worthy of an upset was necessary. And this Missouri team, following an 11-0 run in the final 2 minutes, created a three-team jam atop the Big 12 with Kansas and Baylor looking every bit the favorite as the other two.
"We want to beat (Kansas) really bad, because we know how much it means to them," English said of the passion surrounding the rivalry, which has roots in the Civil War. "But this game to us was a game we needed to win to continue our quest to win the Big 12. I didn't want a big rah-rah celebration."
There was no grandiose reaction from the home crowd following Missouri's rally, one that ended Kansas' five-game series winning streak and gave the Tigers their first victory over their heated rivals to the west since 2009.
But for everyone in black and gold, there were plenty of reasons to celebrate. Denmon, the Tigers' steady guard, scored a game-high 29 points and made more field goals (10) than he had since netting the same amount against Villanova on Dec. 6. Missouri weathered Kansas' second-half surge despite surrendering 25 points to junior forward and Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson 19 of which came after halftime. And coach Frank Haith improved his home record to 13-0 in front of the same fans who doubted him 10 months ago.
However, English never had doubts that Missouri would find a way to win Saturday. The Baltimore native spoke words of motivation with a little less than four minutes left and Kansas ahead by six points. During a timeout, English told his teammates, "We're going to win this game."
Not far away, Denmon took the message to heart. He knew how much it meant to English to give such a guarantee.
"We're the senior leaders for this ballclub," said Denmon, who finished 10-of-16 shooting from the floor, "and I thought it was something where we needed to come out and execute."
Meanwhile, as Missouri students swayed and sang their alma mater following the Tigers' comeback, Kansas coach Bill Self knew his team missed an opportunity. A victory Saturday would have represented the Jayhawks' most-impressive road triumph to date, to pair with home victories over then-No. 2 Ohio State on Dec. 10 and then-No. 3 Baylor on Jan. 16. More importantly, it would have created a two-game lead for the Jayhawks over the Tigers with Missouri's trip to Allen Fieldhouse looming on Feb. 25.
Instead, Self's team will meet another Big 12 contender soon without much room for error. Kansas plays No. 6 Baylor on Wednesday in Waco, Texas. The Jayhawks' attempt to win at least a share of their eighth consecutive Big 12 regular-season title will not come without work.
"I'm leaving here disappointed we lost, but I'm leaving here knowing we have a good team," said Self, who fell to 17-4 all-time against Missouri. "It's obviously not good with the conference situation and the race but still, we've been in this situation before. Tonight was our game to win, and we just didn't get it done."
Kansas did not do what was needed to earn a key road victory, and the result showed how far Missouri has come under Haith. In recent years, beating the Jayhawks would have served as a satisfying consolation for the Tigers after being eliminated from Big 12 contention early.
However, the postgame reaction of English, Denmon and others is evidence that the Tigers feel as if they have more to prove. Yes, a 16-point loss to Kansas State on Jan. 7 created doubt about their small lineup, and a seven-point defeat to Oklahoma State on Jan. 25 led to questions about if they can handle success.
But the Tigers' victory Saturday along with their triumph over then-No. 3 Baylor on Jan. 21 suggests English and Denmon have reason to believe this season can become memorable. Chemistry is improved from last year. And following his postgame address, English patted Haith on the back and smiled as he walked from his spot behind a table toward the locker room a scene that likely would not have been repeated if Mike Anderson were still in Columbia.
No, this Missouri team is different. Confidence is higher. Expectations are ambitious. And English, Denmon and others have proved they belong atop the Big 12 more than halfway through the conference schedule.
"I think I'm around a bunch of winners," Denmon said. "We want to win and buy into the coaching staff and the system and whatever you've got to do to get wins."
Denmon and his teammates bought in Saturday, even when their first home loss of the season appeared imminent. As a result, the Tigers looked the part of a Big 12 leader.