MU rallies to seal spot in Big 12 title game

Sunday, March 16, 2003

DALLAS -- Missouri had plenty of motivation.

Sure, the Tigers wanted to get into the Big 12 championship game and leave no doubt about their chance of making the NCAA tournament. More importantly, they wanted to avenge a couple of close losses to Kansas.

They accomplished all three of those goals with one win Saturday.

Rickey Paulding scored 21 points, including five 3-pointers, and the Tigers rallied to beat No. 4 Kansas 68-63 in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament. Missouri is in the final for the first time since 1997, the league's first season.

"It's like a storybook. We knew if we kept playing hard we had a chance to run into them again," Tigers center Arthur Johnson said. "And luckily we executed and came out with the victory."

The Tigers (21-9) had lost five straight to their border-state rival, including both games this season, 76-70 and then 79-74 in the regular-season finale today for Missouri's only loss at home this season.

"The freshness of the last loss really motivated us," coach Quin Snyder said. "We played our best half of the tournament in the second half."

Snyder was confident of taking his team to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season even before this week. But three wins in three days make that even more likely, even if they don't win the tournament and the league's automatic berth today.

Kansas (25-7), which won the regular-season Big 12 crown, didn't score after Aaron Miles made a layup to tie the game at 63 with 3:15 left. The Jayhawks then missed their last five shots and shot just 35 percent (21-of-60), a day after shooting 60 percent in an 89-75 win over Iowa State.

"We played like the team that had played three days in a row," Kansas coach Roy Williams said. "The want-to and sharpness was more in their corner. We had a lot of little breakdowns."

The Tigers took the lead when Johnson went strong to the hoop for a basket with 2:08 left. Both teams then traded misses before Kansas had a huge turnover with a chance to tie the game.

Keith Langford started to drive and then passed to Michael Lee, who let the ball go through his hands and out of bounds by the Kansas bench with 57 seconds left. After the Tigers broke full-court pressure, Lee fouled Ricky Clemons, who made two free throws to make it 67-63 with 26 seconds left.

Missouri will play sixth-ranked Oklahoma (23-6), which beat Texas Tech 67-60 in overtime in the other semifinal, in its first final since 1997. The Tigers lost that year to Kansas, which won the first three titles but hasn't been able to add another one.

It was the 100th career loss for Big 12 coach of the year Williams, who has won 413 games in his 15 seasons with the Jayhawks.

The Jayhawks are in the NCAA tournament for sure, but will have to wait and see whether they will get a No. 1 seed. They had won five in a row and 12 of 13.

"People said that we had a No. 1 seed sewed up, but I wouldn't be shocked if we got a No. 2," Williams said. "I'm proud of what we've accomplished this season, but I'm not proud of the way we played."

After Kirk Hinrich picked up his fourth foul with 14:26 left, Missouri went on a 15-6 run in the next six minutes to get close before the Kansas guard returned to the game.

"I don't like it when Kirk is on the bench with me," Williams said.

Travon Bryant scored inside to get the Tigers to 52-51 before Hinrich returned.

"It definitely changed the complexion of the game," Nick Collison said. "We're a lot better when he's out there on the floor and in control of the game."

The Tigers appeared to be in trouble when Paulding committed his fourth foul with 7:32 left. Instead, Clemons popped a 3-pointer and Missouri led 56-55.

Langford then scored two straight baskets for the Jayhawks. He drove for a layup that left Missouri's Kevin Young on the floor and then got had his jumper bounce high off the rim before falling in to make it 59-56 with five minutes left. The Jayhawks made just one more basket after that.

Bryant, whose buzzer beater against Oklahoma State on Friday got the Tigers in the semifinals, added 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Johnson had 12 points.

Collison led Kansas with 17 points, while Langford had 15. Hinrich was limited to 12 points.

Kansas couldn't maintain its early momentum.

Hinrich found Lee for a 3-pointer that capped a 13-2 Jayhawks run and put them up 16-6 midway through the first half.

The 10-point lead was the largest for Kansas, and it was wiped out by a 13-3 run by Missouri. But the Jayhawks went ahead again when Miles passed along the baseline to Hinrich for an open 3-pointer, and they led 34-26 at halftime.

"Our team showed a lot of toughness," Snyder said. "We persevered through a chaotic first half. We refused to give in."

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