The final TV timeout came with 3 minutes, 40 seconds remaining, and the Kansas huddle was full of positive energy.
Thomas Robinson had just scored his 25th point and Marcus Denmon had committed a turnover. The Jayhawks emerged from the pause and Tyshawn Taylor went baseline for a slam and an eight-point KU lead.
In front of a wild crowd and a national television audience, Kansas was going to steal one at Mizzou Arena and take charge of the Big 12 race.
But during the final 2½ minutes — KU still held an eight-point lead with 2:08 remaining — the Jayhawks’ world fell apart and Missouri’s soared.
For Kansas to lose, everything had to fail and nearly every move by Mizzou had to work.
That’s precisely what happened.
As the teams prepare for today’s titanic clash at Allen Fieldhouse, the events in the final moments of the game on Feb. 4 have everything to do with what has happened to the Jayhawks since that day and their mind-set.
KU hasn’t lost since then. There’s been greater awareness of keeping poised in late-game situations, although the Jayhawks still have problems there. But a sense of not repeating the colossal mistakes of the Missouri game follows Kansas into every contest.
“There’s been more of a focus on closing out games,” senior guard Tyshawn Taylor said. “We understood we had to get better at it. And I think we’re getting better at it.”
Or at least not play as poorly down the stretch as they did in Columbia. It’s difficult to believe the amount of missteps Kansas crammed into about 2 minutes: Two offensive fouls on charges, another turnover on a traveling violation, two missed free throws, a missed jump shot taken with too much time on the shot clock.
That’s just on the offensive end. Coach Bill Self was right when he later said KU would have been better off just holding the ball for the entire length of the shot clock and throwing it out of bounds. Enough time would have burned from the clock to end the game in KU’s favor.
Instead, not only had KU finished scoring on Taylor’s dunk, the Jayhawks could do nothing about Denmon’s hot hand. And the first Kansas mistake came when Robinson was out of defensive position on a Denmon drive and foul. The three-point play with 2:07 remaining cut the margin to five and brought the arena to life.
The next two Mizzou trips ended in Denmon threes, one with KU defender Conner Teahan draped all over him, and gave the Tigers the lead.
“We actually guarded him pretty good,” Self said.
But should Teahan, and not one of KU’s three better defenders — Taylor, Elijah Johnson or Travis Releford — have had the assignment on the Tigers’ hottest hand? Teahan was in the game because center Jeff Withey had proven ineffective and was held scoreless.
“My worst game,” Withey said.
Taylor was especially hard on himself afterwards.
“We made plays down the stretch that you can’t make,” Taylor said. “Me and Thomas made some plays down the stretch that big-time players for their teams can’t make.”
Taylor and others shouldn’t be inhibited, Self said. Just smarter.
“Execution, free throws and getting stops when you need them,” Self said.
Kansas had shaky moments after leaving Columbia but did just enough at Kansas State and Texas A&M to hold on to victories.
Plus, Self said, he’d like to see a little Novak Djokovic in all of his players. You know, the tennis player who has won the last three and four of the last five Grand Slam events.
“Basketball is a little like tennis,” Self said. “There are certain points you have to win. When you’re down five with 3 minutes to go, you have to get a stop. If you’re up five with less than 2 minutes to go, you have to have a good possession. These are the things you must do to become a good closing team.”