Missouri never had a chance.
Maybe the Tigers and their fans thought they did against Kansas in the Border Showdown on Saturday at Mizzou Arena. After all, MU played a great game in Lawrence nearly a month ago on Jan. 15 and just barely fell to KU, 80-77. And sure, maybe Missouri and the rabid Antlers could taste a possible victory after building a 16-8 lead with 14:13 remaining in the first half. Let’s not forget, too, that Missouri had won the last two games over KU in new Mizzou Arena.
And after the video board before pregame introductions showed highlights of MU’s overtime victory last year vs. Kansas, well, that surely could only hype up the Tigers to a new level and play their most inspiring game of the season. So I guess you really can’t blame the black and gold for thinking they could go head-to-head with Kansas for 40 minutes.
But those video board highlights only proved to pump up the ‘Hawks, who couldn’t wait to end MU’s two-game winning streak in Columbia and make this a magical afternoon for Kansas. KU wound up whipping the Tigers, 92-74, and gave coach Bill Self his 300th career coaching victory.
What MU perhaps didn’t realize is this wasn’t the same KU team that played the Tigers a month ago. This is a much improved squad which is coming together and showing signs of peaking just a month before the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced on Selection Sunday (March 11) when March Madness begins.
After MU got off to a hot start and led 16-8, KU went on a furious 24-2 run and never really looked back. Yes, Missouri would make some runs the rest of the game, but the Jayhawks always answered with big-time plays and broke the Tigers’ press with easy buckets. Bill Self’s Jayhawks, quite simply, turned Mizzou Arena into their own playground. They made high flying dunks; they made jump shots; they made defensive stops; and they attacked the offensive boards and dominated the paint with a resounding 56-28 edge and 25-14 margin on second chance points.
Super sophomores Brandon Rush and Julian Wright led the charge. Rush was aggressive and very efficient on offense, took shots within the flow of the game, and scored 21 points on eight-of-10 shooting (three-of-three from 3-point land), while also grabbing seven boards.
“He was fabulous,” Self said. “He played to his ability.”
And then there was “the other kid.” Wright had the game of his life with a career-high 33 points and 12 rebounds. He was in his “Beast Mode” the entire game; he flew to the basket for acrobatic dunks and was a terror on the offensive boards (8); he turned his intensity up a notch and played with controlled abandon; and he ran the floor as well as any big man in the land and got transition baskets.
And then with KU up 43-28 in the second half, Wright elevated his play to the heavens. After catching the ball on a fastbreak, Wright took flight on the baseline outside of the lane, hung in mid-air, and jumped over a MU player for what might have been the best dunk by a KU player in recent years.
“Oooh doggie, “ exclaimed ABC color commentator Jimmy Dykes. “That’s a long way to fly,” echoed play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler. “Wow, you recruit that,” Dykes added. “You can’t teach that.”
It was a defining play and a masterful game that Self, Jayhawk fans, and the NBA scouts had all been waiting for from Wright. He shot 14-of 21 (both career highs) and shattered his previous career-best (23 points) and high school mark of 24 points at Homewood-Flossmoor in Illinois. Wright also scored the most points in a conference game by a KU player since former Jayhawk phenom Danny Manning went off for 37 points at Missouri on Feb. 27, 1988.
Simply amazing. And Wright showed just why one NBA scout told me he has a chance to eventually be the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the NBA draft if he comes out after his junior season. (Wright has said he’s staying at KU next season.)
KU coach Bill Self was mesmerized, too, by Wright’s phenomenal play against MU.
“He was off the charts today,” Self said. “Julian was as good as he’s ever been. He dominated the game, in my opinion. Totally controlled it.”
Self loved the team’s effort and had much reason to smile afterwards.
“Too many unforced errors (16 turnovers), but I thought our guys played great,” Self said. “We did a lot of good things. Our guards got in the paint. Sherron (Collins, 14 points and seven assists) was really good again. Let’s not forget about Darnell (Jackson, 10 points on four-of-four shooting and six boards). I thought Darnell gave us great minutes off the bench when Shady (Darrell Arthur) and Sasha (Kaun) got two quick ones (fouls) early.”
KU led by as many as 25 points in the second half with 10:18 remaining before Missouri cut the lead to 12 points at the 6:11 mark. That was the closest MU would get the rest of the game.
“It was a great win,” Self said. “Any time you beat Mizzou is great. Any time you win in this building is going to be special, because it’s the first time we’ve done that. They beat us on the last possession the last two years, and we felt like we owed them one and we were able to do it.
Of course, they did. The Tigers never really had a chance. KU just had too much firepower, two much shooting, too much defense, and too much Jayhawk pride. Kansas fell to Texas A&M at home on Feb. 3 (69-66) after blowing a 10-point lead with over six minutes remaining in the game, and was determined to finish this game the right way.
The ‘Hawks also had too much Rush and all the Wright stuff. The two stars helped Self notch his 300th career victory.
“I don’t worry too much about that stuff,” Self said. “Hopefully, there will be a few more down the road. We just got to get ready and have another good week. We had a good week this past week, we just got to keep trying to get better.”
So after bouncing back after the Aggies loss with two impressive wins over rivals K-State (97-70) and Missouri, the ‘Hawks go to Boulder on Wednesday with a matchup vs. Colorado. And if KU keeps winning, gets better and peaks this next month, the ‘Hawks could very well be looking at a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday come March 11.