LAWRENCE, Kan. At the end, Michael Dixon sank to the court with both hands over his face, an epic Border Showdown complete with a painful lesson. Not far away, Marcus Denmon pulled his black jersey over his head, and the two Missouri guards walked from a delirious Allen Fieldhouse understanding the fine difference between joy and disappointment.
Less than an hour earlier, it looked as if the third-ranked Tigers would experience a much different postgame scene than the one that erupted following No. 4 Kansas' 87-86 overtime victory Saturday.
They led 58-39 following a three-pointer from Denmon with 16:24 left and the Jayhawks' 20-game home-winning looking very much in doubt. They quieted a frothing crowd of 16,300 that made a decibel reading hover near 120 before tipoff. And they appeared poised to erase the memory of a weak effort during a home loss to Kansas State on Tuesday that seemingly took away a chance at an outright Big 12 Conference title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, Missouri seemed capable of earning its best regular-season victory in recent memory. Then came a 36-17 Kansas run to close regulation. Then came Jayhawks senior forward Thomas Robinson's block of sophomore guard Phil Pressey in the second half's final seconds. And then came Dixon's inability to find Denmon with enough time to attempt a final shot in the closing seconds of overtime.
One minute, joy. The next, disappointment. The Tigers lived each extreme in what could be the last regular-season meeting between the heated rivals for some time. As a result, there are both reasons to question and anticipate where Missouri's season can go from here.
"We had the game in our hands just like they, apparently, had the game in their hands in Columbia," said Missouri senior guard Kim English, who finished with 11 points. "We had the game in our hands. We gave them a gift."
Perhaps so, and that is part of the reason to wonder how Missouri will respond in the coming weeks. The Tigers face their first two-game losing streak under coach Frank Haith. However, their schedule appears favorable for a quick recovery against Iowa State (Feb. 29) and Texas Tech (March 3) before beginning the Big 12 Tournament on March 8 in Kansas City, Mo.
But how will Missouri fare in a potential rematch with Kansas at the Sprint Center and other top competition in the NCAA Tournament?
The Tigers' strong start Saturday on their way to building a 12-point halftime lead and, later, the large second-half advantage represented a chance to be greedy. Few outside their locker room this writer included thought they would play with the poise they showed for most of the afternoon in one of the country's most-intense environments. Haith's team looked inspired to earn its first season sweep of the Jayhawks since 1994 and reclaim its place within the discussion as one of the nation's top four teams.
Yet, a team of Missouri's talent should not elevate close calls, and there is reason to be concerned by how the Tigers collapsed late. The game was Missouri's to win so much so that Kansas coach Bill Self admitted as much in his postgame address. Despite the hostile setting, letting a lead slip away that was tied for the largest the Jayhawks have ever overcome at home should make Haith pause.
"We left it on the court," Haith said. "We can't fault anything. I read everything we weren't supposed to be in the game. We weren't supposed to be in the game today. These guys came out and competed."
They did, and beyond the questions that came out of Saturday, the Tigers' effort is reason to anticipate where Missouri's season could lead. The Tigers will not play in another raucous environment this season, because their lone remaining road test comes against Big 12 cellar-dweller Texas Tech. And the Tigers have to like their chances on a neutral floor in a third game against Jayhawks if the teams meet with a Big 12 Tournament championship at stake.
With their early play Saturday, Missouri looked far better than then-No. 2 Ohio State and then-No. 4 Baylor appeared here under the same conditions. Until the second-half collapse, the Tigers showed a maturity that suggested reaching the first Final Four in school history should not be out of the question if they perform to their potential. Haith's team played skilled Saturday, even mad, and stunned a crowd that is accustomed to seeing its team intimidate opponents.
"We grew today from the Kansas State game," English said. "That was just another step in our growth to get to where we want to be. We came out and performed a lot better than we did against Kansas State. So we grew from our performance."
Missouri did mature in its last appearance in Lawrence as a Big 12 member. And the fine line between joy and disappointment gave the Tigers both reasons to be concerned and eager about their upcoming March run.
After Dixon reached Missouri's locker room, Denmon told him to stay hopeful about the future. Meanwhile, Self pumped his fists on the court toward the crowd. Kansas had earned at least a share of its eighth consecutive Big 12 title, and the coach reveled in the moment.
A painful lesson for the Tigers produced a much different reaction. Still, they continue to grow even after a Border Showdown that few will forget anytime soon.