The No. 5 Missouri Tigers (28-4) got off to a dominating start in their final run in the Big XII Tournament, defeating the Oklahoma State Cowboys (15-18) 88-70. Their next opponent, the Texas Longhorns (20-12) also kicked off their Big XII Tournament campaign on the right foot, upsetting the Iowa State Cyclones (22-10) 71-65. The two teams will square off for a berth in the finals tonight at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
The Longhorns and the Tigers have had very different seasons up to this point, but still have plenty to play for. Texas is squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but may have earned a spot in March Madness when they, the sixth seed in the Big XII, beat the third-seeded Cyclones. A win over Missouri would all but guarantee them a spot in the dance. The second-seeded Tigers can’t allow that to happen if they want to continue their contention for a number one seed in March Madness, which is still in their sights. They will likely have to win the Big XII Tournament to do so, which would mean defeating Texas first then beating either Kansas or Baylor, who play in the other semifinal. Finishing ahead of Kansas in the tournament, who is currently projected to be a one seed in March Madness, would give Mizzou their best shot to claim a top seed.
Mizzou advanced to the semifinals by blitzing Oklahoma State in the early goings of the first half and not looking back. Led by senior guard Kim English (14.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG), who scored 21 of his 27 points in the first half, the Tigers went on a 26-5 run in the first half, and led by as many as 29 points. The Tigers were an offensive juggernaut, shooting 59.3 % for the game and had four players score in double figures, including 24 points and eight rebounds from senior guard Marcus Denmon (18.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG). Sophomore guard Phil Pressey (9.5 PPG, 6.3 APG) also added 12 assists, one shy of a team record, and five steals. The Tigers also manhandled the shorthanded Cowboys, who were missing Big 12 Freshman of the Year Le’Bryan Nash (13.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG) who is out with an injured hand, on the glass, outrebounding them 37-18 and not allowing an offensive rebound in the first half. There was an emotional moment at the end of the game when OSU senior guard Keiton Page (17.1 PPG, 2.2 APG), one of the most accomplished players in Oklahoma State history, was removed from his final game as a Cowboy. Page received a standing ovation from the majority of fans in attendance, even non-OSU supporters.
After Mizzou was done on the court, Texas took to the floor in the nightcap from Kansas City. The Longhorns found themselves down four at half and it seemed that Iowa State would win going away when they scored the first seven points of the second half to go up by 11. But a desperate Texas team possibly playing for their tournament life kicked it into high gear and went on a 22-4 run to turn their deficit into a seven point lead. Iowa State clawed back in what was a tight game throughout and had it tied up at 65 with 51.6 seconds left in the game. But Iowa State failed to execute and turned the ball over at crucial times down the stretch, while junior guard and Big XII leading scorer J’Covan Brown (20.1 PPG, 3.8 APG) converted an and-one to put the Longhorns up for good in the final minute.
The Longhorns have been on the wrong end of several close games this season, losing nine games by 10 points or less, including a 67-66 loss to Missouri on Jan. 30. Mizzou won the first game of the season series in Columbia 84-73, but found themselves in trouble when they travelled to Austin. Missouri led by 12 with under four minutes to go, but coughed up the lead after a flagrant foul on Missouri’s junior guard Michael Dixon (13.3 PPG, 3.3 APG) led to two free throws and a basket by Brown with under a minute to play. But Dixon, who scored 21 in the game to lead all scorers, went from potential goat to hero of the game when he made a driving layup with 31 seconds to go to put Missouri up by one. Texas failed to convert on their final possession, allowing Mizzou to escape with the win.
Missouri has played Texas well this season, with the exception of a near collapse at the end of the game at Texas. With Texas a tight game is almost expected, but Missouri will be the favorites going in and have blown out their opponents in the three games they have played in the Sprint Center this season. In their three games in Kansas City, (OSU and wins over Notre Dame and Cal earlier in the season), the Tigers have outscored opponents 267-181. Playing in front of what will likely be a pro-Mizzou crowd should help Missouri feel right at home, where they defeated the Longhorns by double digits earlier in the season. But Texas is a desperate team, still looking to solidify their place in March Madness. Mizzou can’t be caught looking ahead to a potential rematch with arch rival Kansas in the tournament finals, and will need to get past an upset-minded Texas team that stands in their way.