Marcus Denmon drove away from the Missouri basketball facility following an evening film session, in awe of the sight before him.
Students were walking towards Mizzou Arena, tents and sleeping bags in hand. They were chanting too. It was Feb. 4, 2012, but even the blistering cold of a Midwest winter couldn’t take away from the excitement on campus. The senior guard could feel how big of a game awaited him and the Tigers the next day. Everyone could. It was the kind of anticipation that was palpable. It was all anyone was talking about.
The University of Missouri was set to switch conferences from the Big 12 to the SEC the following season, and at the time many suspected this would be the last game between the two Border War rivals at Mizzou Arena. After nearly 10 years, the rivalry returns Saturday at 2:15 p.m. when the Tigers play KU in Lawrence.
As a Kansas City native, the 2012 games meant even more to Denmon. He had attended the Big 12 Tournament throughout his childhood. He had witnessed firsthand how much the Missouri-Kansas rivalry meant to everyone in the area, heightened even more so once he started playing in it.
The matchups that year had major implications beyond the rivalry. In that first game on Feb. 4, The Tigers were the No. 4 team in the country, the Jayhawks No. 8. They were locked into a tight race for the top of the conference, Mizzou with its last chance at ending Kansas’ dominating streak of seven Big 12 regular season titles. ESPN’s “College GameDay” was coming to Columbia for what was expected to be a wild affair and Dick Vitale would be calling the game.
Though they expected to win, Denmon and his teammates knew how big of an opportunity lay ahead. They felt overlooked, despite the ranking, and this was their chance to solidify Mizzou as a program to be reckoned with nationally.
Denmon was averaging an impressive 17.8 points per game at that point, but he was in the midst of a shooting slump. Across the last five contests, he’d made just five of 31 shots from deep (16.1%). The game prior against Texas was especially uncharacteristic; he only produced six points and missed nine of his 12 field goal attempts.
“He was going through a rough patch in the season,” said senior guard Kim English, now the head coach at George Mason. “But if you know him, you know he always lives for the big moment and you knew he’d have a really good game.”
Denmon played with a chip on his shoulder, still does to this day. He wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American or highly touted recruit coming out of Hogan Prep, though he felt like he was better than many who were. Every time he stepped onto the hardwood was a chance to prove people wrong for doubting him. He wanted to dance with the ball in his hands and step up as a leader for his team, to show everyone what he was made of when it mattered most. The bigger the stage, the more excited he was. And this game?
“This was the top of the top, like there’s no better chance to perform than on this stage,” Denmon said. “I wanted to relish the moment.”
He was about to do much more than that. Denmon went on to have one of the best games of his career, one that rightly holds a spot in great Tiger lore, as he willed his team to a comeback victory in the all-important matchup.
It was clear early on that Denmon’s recent shooting woes weren’t going to be an issue. You’d have a hard time believing that they were even there to begin with.
A little over a minute into the game, chants of “Let’s go Tigers!” filled Mizzou Arena, the crowd eagerly awaiting the home team’s first bucket after Kansas took a 3-0 lead. Denmon received a pass from Phil Pressey just below the Norm Stewart Court logo with 11 seconds left on the shot clock and got to work.
He dribbled inside the three-point line trying to find an open look, but Kansas’ Travis Releford was guarding him closely. So Denmon backed out toward the Tiger logo at midcourt and surveyed his options. Shot clock down to five, he took a dribble and stepped into a deep three, swishing it through the bottom of the net from around 40 feet out.
“It was a broken play and he buried it,” MU guard Jarrett Sutton recalled. “It sort of was like this relief, right? We wanted to start on a good note...and there’s so much energy in the building and there’s a lot of nerves, there’s a lot of adrenaline going, and Marcus just sort of settled us down in times when we needed that.”
Denmon connected on each of his first three three-point attempts, matching his total makes from deep over the last three games combined by the 8:52 mark of the first half, at which point he was already up to 12 points. Within less than 30 seconds, he had another bucket, taking it coast to coast himself for a layup.
Throw in a steal and fast break score that capped off an 11-0 run in the final minutes of the half and Denmon was up to 16 points with Missouri leading 39-34 at the break. He’d assisted on two buckets as well, responsible for 53.8% of the team’s production in the opening frame.
“When you in the flow of the game it’s just like sometimes you can feel like every time you touch the ball, you just feel like…” Denmon trails off as he tries to put into words what exactly possessed him that day. “I just felt like every shot I was shooting was going to go in. Even though I always feel confident like that, it’s like in certain moments certain players have to step up.”
So when Missouri found itself in a 69-63 deficit at the under-four timeout in the second half, Denmon was determined to be that guy. He hadn’t touched the ball in a few possessions, something he pointed out adamantly to coach Frank Haith as the Tigers huddled with 3:40 left on the clock.
“Coach, you have to get me the ball!” Haith recalled Denmon yelling over the crowd noise.
“Marcus, calm down. We’re going to be fine.”
“You don’t understand,” Denmon responded emphatically. “I got Teahan guarding me. He can’t guard me.”
Denmon and Teahan were familiar foes on the court dating back to AAU ball. Denmon felt confident that the Rockhurst High School product couldn’t guard him. He felt like nobody on that Kansas roster could. Everyone gathered in that timeout believed it too. Some guys say they want the ball in late game situations, but it’s all talk. Denmon was action, a proven closer. And this was his moment.
“His encouragement during that time out was probably what won that game,” Haith insists. “That was kind of a classic moment there.”
Haith was only in his first season as Missouri’s head coach, tasked with taking over a tight knit group in their fourth year together. He had quickly developed a bond and mutual respect with his players though, which was crucial in this moment.
“I’ve had a lot of coaches where that could go bad..but we weren’t like that. We were on the same page,” Denmon said. “That was the beauty of our relationship, that was the beauty of that team. We were able to talk to each other and be upfront and honest about things.”
A little over a minute later, the Kansas lead was up to eight. Then came the heroics.
“He goes on the Marcus miracle run, if you will,” says Sutton.
“Get him the ball and get out of the way,” recalls English.
“Obviously that didn’t work out so well for me,” admits Teahan.
“It was just unbelievable,” Kansas coach Bill Self adds.
The first play Haith drew up for Denmon was one the team had run a lot in practice with late game situations in mind. The plan was to get him isolated on the weak side and let him cook.
Denmon started the sequence on the left block and eventually cut diagonally to the top right of the arc, dropping Teahan. English executed a screen to perfection in the process, extending the right side of his body to keep Reliford from getting to Denmon as he caught a pass from Pressey, simultaneously cutting off Teahan as the Jayhawk tried to recover.
Then, left one on one with Reliford, Denmon used a stutter dribble to toy with his defender, forcing the hesitation and getting the Kansas player off balance as he worked into the paint. With his man shook, Denmon drove towards the basket and sank a layup, also drawing a foul from Thomas Robinson, who had burst into the restricted area as a last ditch effort.
“Marcus [Denmon] is by far the toughest player I’ve ever played with or against,” Sutton said. “[He] is the definition of fearless. He’s a cold blooded killer, he’s an assassin.”
The momentum had been all Kansas for much of the second half, but as soon as Denmon got that and-one bucket to make it a 71-66 game with 2:07 left, things started to shift.
Haith subbed Steve Moore into the game for Ricardo Ratliffe, as he did repeatedly with the five spot throughout those final minutes on defensive possessions, and the senior soon after drew a charge from Thomas Robinson, one of the more controversial calls of the night.
Mizzou ball. Go time. Haith went with another call designed to get a quick score, a weak side staggered screen play that used similar backside action as the previous possession.
Players started cutting and setting screens as soon as point guard Phil Pressey dribbled past midcourt. Within just six seconds, Denmon rose up and drained a three-pointer from the top right. The catch and shoot bucket trimmed Missouri’s deficit to two points with 1:32 remaining on the clock, but unbeknownst to many, the possession hadn’t gone entirely as planned.
“Ricardo [Ratliffe] actually was a second late. He forgot the play a little bit,” Denmon recalled. “And so everybody else went, I believe [Kim English] and Ricardo came to set a weak side screen for me, but Ricardo wasn’t there. But I went anyway cause I had a step. And so I remember I got the ball and I rolled up for a three.”
Added Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor: “He was going crazy on us...He played great that year, but against us it felt like he didn’t miss any shots bro.”
Still down two, Missouri wanted to dial up the pressure even more. So on the ensuring Jayhawks’ possession, they brought the press. Pressey pestered Taylor as he tried to dribble the ball up the court, leading to a steal from his older brother, Matt Pressey.
It looked like the Tigers were going to run the fast break, but after they didn’t see a shot they liked right away they slowed things back down.
“[Phil Pressey] was trying to run the set. But I just ran up to him and got the ball and just told him like, you know, kind of clear it out,” Denmon said. “I wanted the ball, I wanted to...decide the game.”
As he started making his move to get into the shot he wanted, Denmon noticed a second Kansas player coming his way. It wasn’t a full double-team and he was feeling himself, so he kept the ball and dribbled to the eye of the Tiger logo to create some space. Back in control, Denmon drove again, but as he reached the top of the key, Matt Pressey’s defender, Taylor, charged his way.
Knowing better than to force something against the double team, Denmon switched hands, turned towards the Mizzou bench and dumped a short pass behind his back to his teammate.
“It swings around to me,” Matt Pressey recalled. “I had Thomas Robinson on me and he closes out and I had an open jump shot.”
Instead of trying to shoot the ball though, something instinctual came over the elder Pressey brother. He immediately whipped it to Denmon in the left corner.
“I knew that Marcus Denmon, he had hit the last two shots,” Matt Pressey recalled. “I would make that pass all the time, but I don’t know why, for some reason it’s just like no hesitation.”
Says Denmon: “Matt was really a high IQ player.”
Denmon had the ball back in his hands and the matchup he wanted, with none other than Teahan guarding him. He pump-faked, but the Jayhawk didn’t jump. He rose up for the three anyway, knowing the shot was going to fall.
Once the shot went through, the crowd erupted. The building was electric. Nearly everyone The Star talked to said it was the loudest they had ever heard Mizzou Arena. That includes Self, who immediately called a timeout with 56.3 seconds left.
Though it was initially ruled a two-pointer, officials went to the monitor during the timeout and saw Denmon’s feet were clearly beyond the line. After trailing for nearly 16 minutes of game play, Missouri was back in front, up 72-71.
“It was a joyous moment,” Matt Pressey said. “I could have took that shot, but to trust my teammate and for it to work, for me it’s no better feeling, you know what I mean? It’s like you double down on your friend or your teammate and they come through.”
That triple would be the game-winning field goal, as the remainder of the contest came down to shots at the charity stripe — two misses from KU’s Taylor and two makes from Dixon to seal a 74-71 victory for Missouri.
Playing like a man possessed, Denmon had done the unthinkable. In just a 70 second span, he’d gone on a personal 9-0 run to completely flip the outcome of what was presumed to be the last Border War installation at Mizzou Arena. He finished with 29 points, nine rebounds and two assists.
“I think it’ll go down as a classic, as one of the best games in history,” Denmon says.
He didn’t fully soak in how special it was at the time. But nearly a decade later, Denmon still gets asked about that performance on a weekly to monthly basis from both Missouri and Kansas fans. He’s eagerly anticipating the return of the storied rivalry, planning to watch Saturday’s matchup live despite an eight hour time difference in China, where he plays for the Shanghai Sharks.
“I just hope that the players there understand it,” he says. “Because here we are 10 years later almost talking about Marcus Denmon and the 2012 rivalry games.”