LAWRENCE — They saved the best for last.
In the final regular-season meeting as conference opponents, Kansas and Missouri staged a game for the ages with the Jayhawks somehow prevailing 87-86 in overtime.
The Tigers remarkably roared to a 19-point lead early in the second half.
Just as improbably, Kansas came back with amazing defense, forcing overtime.
The outcome wasn’t sealed until the Tigers couldn’t get off a final shot with 8.3 seconds to work with, and the buzzer touched off a wild celebration scene.
Amid deafening Allen Fieldhouse joy, Travis Releford pulled off his jersey and ran around the floor. KU coach Bill Self raised his arms in triumph.
And a crushed Mike Dixon had to be helped up off the floor.
Fourth-ranked Kansas (24-5, 14-2 Big 12) had just clinched no worse than a share of its eighth straight Big 12 championship. A win in either of its final two games, or a Tigers loss, gives KU the title outright.
The third-ranked Tigers (25-4, 12-4) lost for the second straight game.
Afterward, some Jayhawks found it difficult to describe what might have been the most exhilarating game in the building’s 58-year history.
“I’m kind of all over the place right now,” guard Conner Teahan said.
“I can’t even put it into words, man,” said forward Thomas Robinson, who finished with 28 points, 12 rebounds and made the biggest plays on both ends of the floor to extend the game. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be part of something as big as this game was.”
In the end, Kansas senior guard Tyshawn Taylor took a bow. His two free throws proved to be the game winners and the moment couldn’t have been sweeter.
Earlier in the month, Taylor missed two free throws late in the Jayhawks’ three-point loss at Columbia and he hadn’t been reliable from the line in late game situations.
But with 8.3 second remaining, the first one slid through to tie the game. The second swished.
“I’m glad I got to shoot them,” Taylor said.
Taylor had been fouled by Phil Pressey going hard to the basket. He had quickly taken the inbounds pass and raced up the floor after Marcus Denmon appeared to have put a dagger in the Jayhawks with a short baseline jumper with 12 seconds remaining. Taylor went right and attempted a short bank shot.
“I put my head down and got some steam,” Taylor said.
All the Jayhawks picked it up over the final 15 minutes.
The Tigers had taken as 12-point halftime lead and by scoring on their first six possessions after the break, increased the margin to 19.
But behind a solid defense — Kansas held Missouri without a basket for a seven-minute stretch — the Jayhawks chipped away.
Robinson didn’t hurt his postseason award chances by playing huge with 15 seconds-half points, none bigger than his three-point play with 16.1 second remaining in regulation.
KU needed a three, but Elijah Johnson spotted Robinson breaking to the basket and hit him with a perfect bounce pass. Dixon fouled him on the shot, and Robinson sank the free throw.
But Robinson wasn’t finished. The Tigers had the ball in the hands of the right player. Phil Pressey, who finished with eight points and 12 assists, got past Johnson, went to the hoop and attempted to loft a left-handed floater over Robinson.
It didn’t get past Robinson’s hand.
“I think I had my eyes closed to be honest with you,” Robinson said.
Missouri might have seen a foul there as Pressey hit the deck. But no call, and both teams headed to overtime for the first time this season.
The Jayhawks were especially relieved. They hadn’t led the entire second half. When Taylor hit a three to open the extra period, Kansas had its first advantage since 29-27.
For first 25 minutes, the Tigers mostly had taken it to KU. Kansas was passive against the matchup zone defense, Ricardo Ratliffe was doing damaging inside, and Denmon, the hero of the Tigers’ victory in Columbia, was shredding Kansas once again along with Dixon.
The comeback started when Johnson made a couple of three-pointers during Mizzou’s flurry to open the second half. If those bounce away, who knows what happens.
“He made the huge threes when we stunk,” Self said. “Those kind of go unnoticed but they were huge plays.”
Self thought his team was feeling the pressure. The loss to Mizzou, where Kansas blew an eight point lead in the final three minutes, the hoopla surrounding the game’s finality — with Missouri off to the Southeastern Conference next year and the Jayhawks saying they don’t want play it as a non-league game — contributed to his team’s tightness.
“The pressure was on us today,” Self said. “Missouri was playing with house money coming in here, and we were tight coming in.”
But in the end, the Jayhawks found a way.
“We could have won by 20,” Self said. “And it wouldn’t have been as sweet as the way we won it today.”