Missouri takes aim at Baylor for Big 12 finale

The Tigers will take on the Bears for the league title after an expected third Border Showdown with Kansas never came to be.

The Big 12 Conference Tournament championship game will begin at 5 p.m. Saturday in Kansas City and so many expected that the Border Showdown between top-seeded Kansas and Missouri would survive a little longer.

But with No. 1 seed Kansas being knocked off to a suddenly reenergized Baylor team, it became clear that it was never meant to happen — even with No. 5 Missouri's 81-67 victory over Texas on Friday sending the Tigers to the tournament finale.

The dramatics from the regular season’s prior meetings were clearly enough. There was Missouri’s ferocious rally in Columbia, where Tiger fans that camped outside Mizzou Arena as early as four days before the game celebrated their team’s 11 unanswered points en route to a comeback 74-71 victory.

Twenty-one days later, the venue switched to hallowed Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., where the Jayhawks erased a 19-point second-half deficit to rally past the Tigers in overtime, 87-86.

No, a third round of the Border Showdown did not have a place in the well-scripted final year of its existence. After waging against one another for a century-plus, the rivalry between these two schools will rest on the side of a road named after the game’s inventor.

“I was never all right with the rivalry ending, it just is,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after his team’s elimination. “I didn’t come here thinking about the rivalry or anything like that. But we had two epic games with them. It’s unfortunate it’s ending.”

On Saturday night, fans hoping to see a final contest on neutral grounds will not get their wish. Southeastern Conference-bound Missouri will face Baylor for rights to the tournament crown.

“Our coaches didn’t come here early to scout Kansas,” said senior guard Kim English, one of the three four-year seniors on the team who beat Baylor as freshmen in the same game. “We came here just wanting to win a Big 12 championship, no matter who it was against.”

The No. 6 seed Bears have erased memories of a turbulent second half to their season by an impressive showing at the Sprint Center, where they’ve also unveiled a highlighter-themed attire choice, a color design that Adidas says, “Pays homage to the high intensity of March Madness."

“I like them right now,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said with a big smile.

Drew has defended forward Perry Jones III in the midst of the preseason Big 12 player of the year being scorned by critics for averaging just nine points in his final eight conference games. Jones scored a career-high 31 points against Kansas State in the quarterfinals and 18 against Kansas and is demanding back the praise he once received.

Jones struggled twice against Missouri this season, scoring only 12 combined points in both meetings.

In the most recent matchup at Columbia, the Tigers routed the Bears 72-57.

“When Missouri is on, there’s nobody that’s as good in the country,” Drew said after that game. “Nobody. Period.”

Round three between the two will be the last Big 12 competition for departing Missouri, champions of the tournament only once this decade but six times in the Big Eight and Norm Stewart era.

“You want them to have fun and enjoy what they’re doing,” coach Frank Haith said of his players. “They’ve got a tremendous opportunity to play a sport they’ve grown up playing all their lives under the bright lights.”

During Friday night’s Kansas game, “Mini Mizzou,” the contingency of band members that has brought its brass and wood to the Sprint Center, sat in a booth to the left of Baylor’s band and behind the school’s cheerleaders.

The black- and gold-clad students were without their instruments in their laps. Instead, they were with signs reading, “GO BEARS,” rooting on the team against the Jayhawks.

Like the Missouri team, they apparently did not to care for another potential Border Showdown. They played loud for their team when it played for a chance at the championship.

A chance at a championship was all that ever mattered.

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