Vahe Gregorian

Mizzou may not have Kansas to battle, but Braggin’ Rights game will do

The purest, grittiest, most time-honored and hard-earned of rivals are dead to each other for now, or at least dormant after-thoughts.

Mizzou and Kansas are phantoms in each other’s worlds, lingering figments of imagination for each side to root against but only in vague, detached and remote ways.

Blame who you want for that: Mizzou for abandoning the Big 12 to go to the SEC or Kansas for insisting that move was a betrayal that required the counter-maneuver of shunning MU.

And understand, as we’ve been persuaded to, that we’re a long way from Kansas stooping to agree to play Missouri again: why should MU be rewarded for leaving, the mantra goes, and MU needs KU more than KU needs MU. And all that.

Be that as it may, there’s no denying this: Resuming the basketball element of the rivalry at, say, Sprint Center, would instantly become one of the most-anticipated events and most-coveted tickets on the annual Kansas City sports calendar.

And the template for that was on display, again, on Saturday at Scottrade Center, where MU fell to Illinois 65-64 in the final seconds of the fevered 33rd Braggin’ Rights game.

This happening was hatched in 1980, not exactly as an artificial concoction but certainly as a man-made event, driven less by any historic run-up or tradition than by a simple notion of promoters and the personalities of then-coaches Norm Stewart of MU and Lou Henson of Illinois.

Now, it’s enmeshed in the culture of the city and both programs and, in fact, has a national identity, as MU athletics director Mike Alden noted Saturday evening.

Now it stands for itself, as an almost perfectly evenly divided crowd of 21,987 reiterated by being on its feet most of the last five minutes and roaring 50 percent approval and disapproval for every topsy-turvy turn in a game that featured 15 lead changes and wasn’t settled until Tony Criswell’s desperation shot before the buzzer fell short.

In fact, as Mizzou and KU’s scan buttons for their true new rivals continuously zoom along the dials and find no place to stop, it’s hard not to say this is Missouri’s most meaningful foe now.

And this will very much do for MU.

“I know back in the day it was Kansas,” Mizzou freshman forward Johnathan Williams III said, “so I guess they kind of switched it up on us now.”

It’s just too early in Missouri’s SEC odyssey for any of those opponents to really count as that, even Arkansas with Mike Anderson. And just who would it be in football?

That’s why Williams said this game was portrayed to him as “must-win” and felt like, it, too.

“It was crazy, the floor was shaking,” he said.

And that’s why Tiger junior guard Jordan Clarkson said there’s no other “atmosphere like this” and felt fans from “both sides going crazy.”

That’s because it was another terrific, unpredictable game for college basketball in the series full of crazy mood swings and twists.

Early on, Illinois won eight in a row, prompting Stewart to jokingly suggest a “let-me-win” rule but nevertheless stay with the series.

Then MU won four in a row, including the game like no other:

Mizzou’s 108-107 victory in triple overtime 20 years ago, when the frenzied Stewart at one point tried to put players back in the game who had fouled out and at the end of the second overtime had to be restrained by players at halfcourt as Illinois’ Kiwane Garris was shooting (and missing) two free throws.

Afterward, Henson said he knew it was only one loss but that it felt like more.

And that’s what this series has come to mean. It’s a cauldron and a proving ground and something that helps define the season.

“Two heavyweights” going at each other, Mizzou coach Frank Haith said, and that’s always true.

On Saturday, it became Mizzou’s first setback of this season after a 10-0 start, and it ended a four-game MU winning streak in the series.

And it will sting, like it should, to lose to its biggest rival in a game that sets an example others would be rewarded by following no matter how much they want to resist it.

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