In the middle of all the bantering of who holds claim to the territory — whether it is Kansas City, Missouri, as coach Bill Self and the Jayhawk faithful will say; or whether it is Kansas City, Missouri, as the Tiger supporters will say — senior guard Marcus Denmon played like the place was his.
On Thursday night at the Sprint Center, Denmon, a native of the city, added 24 points to the onslaught his team laid on Oklahoma State in an 88-70 win.
At one point in the second half, he converted on an and-one, fired off back-to-back three-pointers and showed off an athletic maneuver by leaping high for a one-handed put-back dunk. He scored 13 straight points and the crowd, dotted with black and gold and red and blue alike, became louder with each score.
“This is home for me,” Denmon said after the game.
For Denmon and his teammates, the Sprint Center, the host of this weekend’s Big 12 Conference Tournament, is the sight where a doubted team made its first believers in what would become a stunning run to a program’s winningest season. The Tigers defeated Notre Dame and then-No. 18 California in the CBE Classic at the Sprint Center early in the season.
“Coming back here from our performance early in the year, we reminded our guys how well we played,” Haith said after the quarterfinal win. “I think our guys are comfortable being here in this building because we have had an opportunity to play here early in the year.”
Certainly Texas, which will tip off with Missouri on Friday night in the tournament’s semifinal round, is far from home – more than 800 miles away to be exact.
The No. 6 seed Longhorns overcame No. 3 seed Iowa State 71-65 in a quarterfinal match following Missouri’s win Thursday.
Texas (20-12, 9-9 Big 12) boasts the league’s leading scorer in guard J’Covan Brown, averaging 20 points a game, two better than Denmon.
“He’s a great scorer,” Brown said of Denmon. “He’s a shooter, he can put it on the ground, he’s a versatile player. We’re going to come out and guard everybody, their shooters, because that’s what they do.”
The game is a vital one for Longhorns, still contending for a chance to dance in the NCAA Tournament. In the locker room at halftime, with his team down 29-24, Texas coach Rick Barnes said he told his team the reality.
“I said, ‘Let’s just pretend we are on the bubble,’” he said. “I wrote down, ‘NIT or NCAA, which one do you want to play in? Whichever one you want, I assure you you’re going to have to earn it.’”
Barnes will meet once more with Haith, who this season has twice out-dueled the man he worked under as an assistant from 2001 to 2004.
The landscape at the Sprint Center on Thursday was rather scarce of Texas orange.
“I think we only had a couple fans,” Brown said. “But you love to walk into other gyms and quiet their fans.”