As the check was toted onto the floor and projected on the Sprint Center jumbotron, two legions watching from opposite sides of the looming screen, one blue-clad, the other in gold and black, took a rare moment to cease their battle of jeers.
Instead, some with mouths as agape as the zeros they were counting at the end of the check’s astronomical sum, every fan stood and applauded.
It was a strangely beautiful moment of unity in the midst of an event that reverberated with echoes of past hatred between two nemeses. Missouri and Kansas, patrons of the bygone Border War rivalry, came together Sunday for a college basketball scrimmage like no other. The “Showdown for Relief,” as it was dubbed, raised over $1.75 million in charity for hurricane relief efforts.
On the court, Kansas triumphed 93-87, as the two promising teams produced a game with unprecedented intensity for a scrimmage, and a competitive quality reminiscent of their annual clashes that came to an end in 2012.
This was a meaningless exhibition. And yet, in more ways than one, it might just be the most meaningful game Mizzou plays this season.
If the last seven months of excessively optimistic prognosis on this year’s team (thanks to something called the “our-holy-savior-Michael-Porter-Jr-has-saved-the-program” hysteria) have been any indicator that Mizzou basketball’s existence is an utter enigma, this game verified just that.
It was methodical. It was sloppy. It was everything. At times it left the 18,951 beholders in the Sprint Center as exhausted by the up-and-down momentum swings as the players.
“I thought it was certainly more intense than a lot of games that we’ll play,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “I thought Missouri played exceptionally well early. They made it seemed like every shot, and had us on our heels. They did a lot of things that will help us because they exposed us in a lot of ways, but I thought it was a great atmosphere. Kudos to both administrations and fanbases for doing something that was pretty special.”
The Jayhawks were led by Devonte’ Graham, who recorded 25 points and 10 rebounds in the win. The senior guard connected on his first four three-point attempts, with the exception of one blocked shot, while getting his team off to a 27-19 start. After 17 points in the first 12 minutes though, his hot hand was cooled the rest of the way by the ever-adjusting Tigers.
“I was just getting into a little bit of a rhythm and a comfort zone,” Graham said. “Then big fellas started going to work and it really got us going.”
Meanwhile, it was freshman forward Jeremiah Tilmon stepping up for Mizzou. In one particular first half sequence, he banked home a contested jump hook, then on the Tigers’ next possession, threaded a graceful bounce pass through defenders from the baseline, finding an open Jordan Barnett at the top of the key for an open three that revived the black and gold half of the arena.
“[Tilmon] was a beast down there,” Barnett said. “He was active on the offensive and defensive glass, and that’s what we need from him. That’s what we preach to him all the time.”
Tilmon finished with 10 points, a count that would’ve totaled higher had he not plagued himself with fouls. Even in a game in which seven fouls were permitted as opposed to the standard five, Tilmon was often sidelined in foul trouble, and ultimately fouled out with just under six minutes to play
“He had seven fouls, so good thing we were playing seven fouls,” Mizzou head coach Cuonzo Martin chuckled. “But he did a great job of getting aggresive post positions. As long as he’s sprinting the floor and getting aggressive in the post, I’m okay with that. I thought it was a plus for him all across the board.”
Mizzou carried an eyebrow-raising 44-40 lead into the half behind a 22-11 finish. Every triple Kassius Robertson and the Mizzou shooters threw up seemed to be going down. Robertson, a Canisius transfer, drained three of four beyond the arc. Barnett hit three of five. The team shot 47 percent from three. Porter tallied 15 of his 21. Mizzou was clicking.
Then a few minutes into the second half, reality hit.
Mizzou was holding strong with a 56-50 advantage four minutes in, but all it took was one inevitable run from Self’s team to exploit the youth and inexperience of Martin’s roster.
A quick 12-3 burst gave the Jayhawks the lead for good and forced a Mizzou timeout with 12:54 to play. Instead of calming the storm though, things only worsened.
“Michael Porter is a talented guy, but he hadn’t been on a stage like this,” Martin said. “And Blake Harris and Jeremiah Tilmon, to all of a sudden be thrown into the energy and passion, to go through that and feel that … now as you move forward you understand what it looks like, and you’re not so consumed with the atmosphere.”
At the center of an increasingly hostile atmosphere in the Sprint Center, the Tigers got sloppy in transition defense. They left their feet far too often on shot fakes. They became easily flustered, as a young team does, and rushed the ball up the floor. Their shots stopped falling. Blake Harris dribbled into turnovers.
Jontay Porter struggled to box out KU’s Billy Preston and Udoka Azubuike, opening up several second and third chances against an unorganized defense for Kansas. The younger Porter’s positioning at the defensive end will need work.
When the dust settled, it was all Rock Chalk. In an extended run of 33-10, Kansas whittled away at Mizzou’s energy and took a lead as large as 83-66.
Missouri chipped away in the final moments, cutting the deficit to seven, but after coming up empty on consecutive possessions despite two foul shots and an open look from deep, it became clear the Tigers had missed their opening. Kansas held on in an undeniably great game, 93-87.
“I thought the effort was there; I thought we had a lot of breakdowns defensively,” Martin said. “That’s fine, because in a game like this, there’s a lot of film to look at, which is really great for both teams. Lot of things to learn.”
If Mizzou takes away anything from this performance, it should indeed be anything but that final score. The fact that this team, in its first time together in competitive action, was able to play one of college basketball’s behemoths within six despite numerous shortcomings should be a testament to how far the program has come since a loss to Ole Miss in March ended a sobering 8-23 season.
“I think it’s great for both teams to be able to play a team of that caliber on this stage,” Martin said. “It’s a win-win. Unfortunately we didn’t the game, but I think we can only get better from it.
Another important tidbit that should be noted: Michael Porter Jr. apparently does not like to lose.
“I was pretty disappointed with my personal performance,” Porter said after the loss. His blank, dejected expression as he leaned back in his chair while addressing the media said it all. “I felt like there were a lot more things I could’ve done for the team, so I’m kind of putting this loss on myself. There was a lot more I should’ve done for my team.”
Indeed, Porter’s shot selection was questionable at times; the freshman class’s top recruit shot 6-20 in the game, hitting only two of his 10 looks when it mattered most in the second half.
He also led the Tigers with 21 though, and added eight rebounds. If that’s a bad day, Mizzou fans can’t wait to see what a good one looks like. Shouldering the loss was by no means necessary, but taking defeat in an exhibition as heavily as he did sends a clear message: Porter is not used to losing, and he doesn’t plan on becoming so. That’s the kind of leader anyone wants on their team.
The disappointment dripping from Porter’s voice was not evident in the words of many others. Jordan Barnett, a weathered senior whose experience should prove vital in counteracting Mizzou’s youth this season, spoke enthusiastically about the spectacle that many fans thought they’d never see again. It was certainly one Barnett never thought he’d be playing in.
“I remember going to see some of the really epic Mizzou-Kansas games, and it was insane, the atmosphere,” Barnett said. “I already knew this was a really big rivalry.”
Barnett grew up in the St. Louis area, played high school ball under Jayson Tatum’s father at CBC and was recruited heavily by Mizzou during a period in which the program was making its transition from the Big 12 to SEC.
A top-100 recruit, Barnett instead committed to a school that still would regularly play Kansas. He lost to the Jayhawks twice as a Texas Longhorn before transferring back to his home state his sophomore year. Two years later, taking in a Border War environment from the court was something of a dream fulfilled.
“The atmosphere here was crazy,” Barnett said. “It seemed like a potential NCAA Tournament game, you know? It was amazing to hear the energized fans, and it just made it that much more fun to play.”
That spirited sentiment was reflected in the 18,000-plus in attendance Sunday, the Kansans and Missourians alike. The opposing fanbases brought the neutral site to life with cheers, jeers and everything in between. The “MIZ-ZOU” response chant was in full throttle from Tiger faithful, and the Jayhawk supporters answered with a passionate in-game energy they’re known for invoking in Lawrence, one of the reasons Allen Fieldhouse is widely considered one of the best venues in collegiate sports.
“In warm-ups you could just tell how much juice there was in the building,” Graham said. “It was a great atmosphere to play in.”
After the game though, one person remained unmoved by the trial of putting the two schools back into one building.
“We’re going to do what’s best for us,” Self said. “We’re not interested in what’s best for Missouri or best for Missouri fans. I don’t think there’s been any change in our position as far as the university goes.”
Self’s stance has endured in recent years, and especially in recent weeks, as the most decisive factor influencing the continuing absence of a permanent revival to the rivalry.
“I’m not the only one that feels that way,” Self said. “There was a very large contingent of KU people who weren’t happy that we were doing this initially, until they realized it was a good cause.”
If this is true, then that contingency was certainly not among the nearly 10,000 fans in blue on Sunday. The erupting exclamations of “Rock Chalk!” from fans entering the Sprint Center, the roar of the blue and red mass when Kansas went on its knockout run in the second half, and the ardent, sustained “BOOO” from the entity as Mizzou was announced all seem to indicate that this is a Kansas fanbase that very much cares about the state of the Border War.
There’s no question that on both sides, the hate is there.
So was the love though on Sunday; assuming this game does remain just an isolated resumption of the rivalry, it will be nonetheless be remembered for great basketball, great energy, and most of all, great cause.