KANSAS CITY, Mo. - About 30 minutes before their tilt with Texas, the Missouri Tigers stood in the Sprint Center tunnel and loosened their legs.
A black curtain hanging from the ceiling kept them from watching the Kansas-Baylor game that was taking place on the court, but the Tigers didn’t need to see a scoreboard to tell who was ahead.
“Everyone always cheers when Kansas scores,” Missouri guard Phil Pressey said. “But when we were standing there, we didn’t hear any cheers for a long, long time. We knew they must be losing.”
Indeed, the game a whole city -- no, a whole nation -- wanted to see on Saturday will never take place. Kansas was upset in the Big 12 tournament semifinals, so instead of one last rendition of the Border War, Missouri will face Baylor for the title. Mizzou, who is making its last appearance in Kansas City as a member of the Big 12, shellacked Texas 81-67 in Friday’s other semifinal.
“I was a little shocked (that KU lost),” Missouri guard Michael Dixon. “But we weren’t too worried about who we were going to play. The only thing we care about is winning a championship. We’ll play whoever we have to play to do it.”
As good as Saturday’s title game could be - the Tigers and Bears both look like Final-Four contenders - the matchup certainly isn’t as sexy as the one that would’ve pitted Missouri against archrival Kansas.
All week long, the buzz in KC has revolved around the potential of the two teams meeting in the title game. Tickets purchased through scalpers would’ve cost in excess of $1,000. The Jayhawks and Tigers split the regular-season series, so Saturday’s rubber match might have been for eternal bragging rights. Missouri is leaving the Big 12 after this season for the SEC, and Kansas has indicated it has no interest in continuing the series.
Missouri coach Frank Haith was asked if he hoped to play KU in the title game.
“That’s a really tough question,” he said. “No, I don’t care who we play, all right? We’re happy to be in the championship game. That’s all we’re going to concern ourselves with. It’s a great opportunity.”
And it’s one Missouri certainly deserves after one of the best seasons in school history. Friday’s victory over Texas improved the Tigers’ record to 29-4. Kim English and Phil Pressey scored 23 points each and combined to make 17 of their 23 field goal attempts. Ricardo Ratliffe added 18 points and 14 rebounds.
How good was Mizzou? The Tigers won on a night when leading scorer Marcus Denmon went 0-for-10 from the field.
“That’s a great example,” Haith said, “of a ballclub that’s a team.”
Kansas had been projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before losing to Baylor. Now the possibility exists that the Tigers could become a No. 1 seed.
“That’s out of our control,” English said. “I’m not Joe Lunardi. I don’t know (what will happen). I have no clue. We’re just trying to win this Big 12 championship.”
To do that, Missouri will have to defeat Baylor for the third time this season. The Tigers escaped Waco, Texas, with a 1-point victory on Jan. 21 before throttling the Bears 72-57 last month in Columbia.
Missouri’s players said Baylor’s performance in its past two games has definitely caught their attention.
“They’re playing their best basketball,” English said, “at just the right time."
So, too, are the Tigers, who are hoping their final Big 12 tournament game in history is also their best.