When I think back on Marcus Denmon’s senior season, that shot of his will come to mind. When I think back to the absurdity of this historic year at Missouri — the unexpected greatness at the start and the unexpected collapse at the end — I’ll think of that shot.
I’ll think back to how he just flung it up there with no other option; how the shot clock wailed and the backboard’s outline glowed red; how Mizzou Arena burst and roared, like a Roman coliseum.
The senior guard made his last year in Columbia a finale of grand proportions. He was the functioning cog that powered the high-octane machine that was Missouri’s offense, the sixth best scoring unit in America. On his way to becoming the program’s fifth all-time leading scorer, highlights were plenty.
"It was arched high and it spiraled through the still-present layers of smoke from the fireworks that cracked when he and his teammates were introduced and … and … there was just no way it was going to go in. No way."
But of course Denmon wasn’t enough a couple of weekends ago. With time running out on his and his team’s season, he couldn’t connect on that reliable three-pointer. Four minutes left, down by one, no good. Twenty-two seconds left, down 84-81, no good.
No. 2 seeded Missouri was supposed to waltz through that game against No. 15 Norfolk State (in Virginia, if you still don’t know). It was supposed to be the start of the Tigers’ lengthiest dance in the NCAA Tournament ever. Who could blame your assumptions after watching such a team all the way to 30 wins?
But it was Norfolk State, having never played in the NCAA Tournament, that crushed your assumptions and donned a Cinderella gown.
ESPN.com ran a graphic beside its game recap titled “Just Missouri being Missouri,” pointing out that “Missouri fans should be getting used to losing in the first round.” As a top-four seed, the Tigers have been dropped three times from tournament openers.
The latest bracket-torching loss will be what you’ll think back on: how quickly and how suddenly midnight struck on a remarkable season; how you fell quiet and held on to that hope, that feeling that came all season when the ball left Denmon’s hands.
You’ll think back to how the hero, despite scoring 20 points, wasn’t mighty enough.
This weekend, as March Madness comes to its close, you’ll think back to what could have been for Missouri, slotted by many to emerge from the West region. You’re still searching for the meaning of this season.
So I urge you to go back to Feb. 4, that electric Saturday night.
Think about what it meant. Yeah, the game meant very much. The ESPN "College GameDay" production came out for the final Border Showdown in Columbia between the Tigers and the arch-rival Kansas Jayhawks. The fans’ tents out on the pavilion were wrinkled and ruined, some of them having been pitched as early as the Thursday morning before.
But I’m not referring to the game.
I’m referring to that shot from Denmon. That one that was so desperate. It was like a prayer. It was arched high and it spiraled through the still-present layers of smoke from the fireworks that cracked when he and his teammates were introduced and … and … there was just no way it was going to go in. No way.
Remember that? For some reason, I can’t forget it.
So I had to ask him about that shot.
Missouri looked out of sorts on its second possession of the game following Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor's three-pointer on the other end. The Tigers dribbled about and passed about, unable to find a seam in the Jayhawks’ defensive jaws.
And then it was Denmon with the ball well beyond the top of the key, scanning his teammates’ failed attempts to find space. An answer was nowhere in sight. Fans bellowed out the shot clock’s digits. “Four… three… two…”
Once, Missouri took a chance on him, a 6-foot-1-inch, 170-pound dreadlocked Kansas City kid with a mere three stars beside his scouting profile.
“He wasn’t highly recruited or highly thought of, but he’s driven,” coach Frank Haith said of Denmon earlier in the season. “If you guys know me, man, you know I love that story. Guys that don’t have a lot of props with them and just worked. And that young man has.”
Missouri took a chance on Haith, who hadn’t even achieved a winning conference record in his first head coaching job at Miami the seven seasons before.
Marcus Denmon took a chance on that shot.
"Denmon and Missouri basketball showed us something this year, something about the way doubts can be vanquished and the way belief can be sprung from nowhere."
And five days later, he was standing in his practice gear in the tunnels leading to the court. His arms were folded across his chest as he swayed slightly, almost in an anxious way, as if he was ready to just get to work already.
“That first shot you put up. The shot clock going down. That surprise you that that went in?” I asked.
He was quiet for seven seconds, thinking back to it. By now, the shot was forgotten, second-handed behind the stunning nine points he heroically added unanswered in the final two minutes of the game to glide his team to a 74-71 victory. He finished with 29.
“It was far out,” I said, helping to remind. “Probably closer to the half-court line than the three-point line.”
“Ooohh,” he finally let out, remembering that one.
That was the one that quenched his drought of going 5-of-31 from behind the perimeter in the previous five games. Through it all, Marcus Denmon had worked and worked, before practice and after practice. Over that span, his rebounding numbers improved, and he talked about whatever needed to be done for his undersized team to win. Winning was what he’d talked about all along.
That was the one that pierced through impossibility.
“Yeah, that was a tough shot,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with the shot. But, I mean, you got to make plays and it was something that really sparked us.”
Denmon has played in more games than any in the program’s history. Over the past four years, he’s been the one making plays and sparking Missouri’s dot on the radar to blip and inch closer toward national recognition.
Ahead of him are the NBA waters. His scouting profile has been refurbished since his days from Hogan Prep High School. The title of second-team All-American has been attached to his name, a title that was announced last week.
Even so, DraftExpress.com pegs him the 54th prospect from the draft pool, at best a second-rounder.
“I sure hope some team takes a chance on him,” Haith has said. “I think, unfortunately, he’ll be talked about for what he can’t do. But, man, he sure does something to help you win.”
The program he leaves behind will be talked about similarly for what it’s never been able to do, like make a Final Four appearance.
But this much is true: Denmon and Missouri basketball showed us something this year, something about the way doubts can be vanquished and the way belief can be sprung from nowhere.
And I would have asked more about that shot, that spectacle that just dangled there for a while, that just floated in frozen time and invited all to come and see.
But practice was beginning that day and Denmon was so eager to get to it.
But before he left, he said something about that impossible shot that went in, something that I keep coming back to when I think about how far the program he departs could go.
“Didn’t it surprise you?” I asked again.
“No,” he said. “No, it didn’t shock me at all.”