KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ Missouri’s guard tandem of Phil Pressey and Kim English cut loose early and often to deny Texas the opportunity to join No. 12 Baylor in a Lone Star State showdown in tonight’s championship game of the Big 12 Tournament.
The fifth-ranked Tigers outlasted the Longhorns, 81-67, Friday night at the Sprint Center, with Pressey and English both contributing a game-high 23 points and center Ricardo Ratliffe adding 18. It marked the third time in three meetings for Missouri (29-4) to defeat Texas (20-13), which must wait until Sunday to learn if the Longhorns will be a part of the NCAA Tournament for a 14th consecutive season.
Most projections Friday night had the Longhorns receiving an at-large berth and being a No. 12 seed when the bracket for the 68-team field is announced Sunday.
Texas coach Rick Barnes said he was proud of his team _ which features six freshmen in its player rotation _ because it “continued to improve” throughout the year and, in his estimation, is deserving of an NCAA berth because of its body of work. Seven of Texas’ 13 losses have come against No. 5 Missouri (3), No. 3 Kansas (2) and No. 12 Baylor (2).
“All of those teams have been mentioned as possible 1, 2 or 3 seeds (in the NCAA Tournament),” Barnes said. “I don’t think our team lacks confidence. I think it’s experience.”
The primary concern coming out of the game, from a Texas standpoint, involved the health of guard J’Covan Brown, the team’s leading scorer. Brown hit his head on a photographer’s camera after making a driving layup in the second half.
He left the game for a brief stretch but returned and played a team-high 36 minutes.
“I banged my head on the camera. My neck got stiff on me,” said Brown, who scored a team-high 21 points and made 8-of-20 shots from the field. “But I’ll be alright.”
Although the Longhorns grabbed an early 6-2 lead against the Tigers, it disappeared quickly. Missouri took the lead for keeps, 8-6, on English’s layup with 15:03 left in the first half and built the margin to double digits before Texas cut the margin to 39-32 at the half.
But Missouri controlled the momentum and the tempo in the second half, keeping the lead in double figures throughout much of the final 20 minutes despite a lack of production by leading scorer Marcus Denmon. The senior, a first-team All-Big 12 performer, missed all 10 shots he took from the field and finished with only two points.
But the Longhorns could not take advantage. Texas trailed by 10 or more points for the final 14:41. Other than Brown, freshmen Jonathan Holmes (11 points) and Sheldon McClellan (10 points) were the only players to score in double figures.
Texas’ loss gave the Longhorns a 1-9 mark against Top 25 opponents this season. But Texas, which moved up to No. 45 in the latest RPI rankings after Thursday’s 71-65 victory over Iowa State, has four victories this season over teams in the Top 50 of the RPI: two over Iowa State, one over Kansas State and one over Temple.
Freshman guard Myck Kabongo indicated the Longhorns are optimistic about the NCAA chances.
“We have something good to work for,” Kabongo said. “We’re going to go back and work hard and get ready for whatever’s next for us.”
For Missouri, the next item on the agenda will be tonight’s 5 p.m. game against Baylor in the Big 12 tournament finals at the Sprint Center. Baylor upset No. 3 Kansas, 81-72, in Friday’s other semifinal contest.
English said he knows the Tigers’ status as an SEC-bound school will not endear the team to fans from other school’s in today’s title game.
“We don’t care about the Big 12 not supporting us,” English said. “We’re really focusing on doing this for the people that do support us. For our coach, for our seniors … for the entire state of Missouri.”
Baylor will be fighting history in today’s title matchup. No team from Texas has won a Big 12 men’s tournament title since the league began competing in the 1996-97 school year.
_ Jimmy Burch