COLUMBIA — They’re all standing, all 12,362 of them, because nobody could bear to leave early.
They’re here at Mizzou Arena watching as the clock stands still at 1:00 and the Missouri Tigers line up an inbounds play down two points to Arkansas.
In a minute, everyone will know whether to come back or not.
In a minute, all 12,362 in attendance will have made a judgment: whether this Missouri team will be worth watching come March.
So the referee’s whistle blows, and the inbound pass finds its way into the hands of forward Johnathan Williams III at the top of the key. Williams III is big, but not big into ball handling.
With all eyes on him, his eyes pan for help.
Help comes in the form of Jordan Clarkson, already sitting on 26 points and a half-season’s worth of carrying the load. Williams III hands the ball to Clarkson, who drives left and launches into a treeline of three more bodies near the rim.
The shot doesn’t fall, but the whistle blows.
And that’s how the biggest minute of Missouri’s season began — with one of its best players on the ground.
Thousands of fingers rise together, and Mizzou Arena’s student section starts to wiggle with hope.
Clarkson, who shoots 82 percent on free throws, has been the Tigers' most reliable foul shooter all season. This game has been a testament to that.
The foul that brought Clarkson here, to the line at this moment, was the 50th called since tipoff, an astounding number.
Clarkson has already hit 10 of 11 on the night. Guard Jabari Brown, despite an uncharacteristically inaccurate night from the field, has hit 14 of 15 from the charity stripe.
All those students wiggling their fingers are expecting these to be easy. The first one is. Fingers become fists that strike the air and the crowd erupts.
“No, not really,” Clarkson will say later, when asked if the free throws become harder to hit down the stretch. “I try to just focus.”
The next one misses long, and the rebound falls into the hands of Arkansas.
“I knew we were going to get a stop,” Clarkson will say later.
But at that moment he walks back to the Tigers bench with his head tilted down, shaking it slowly, fingers stationary at his side.
Sixteen days earlier and 300 miles away in Fayetteville, Ark., the Razorbacks had the ball with less than a minute to go and needed a basket.
With his team down three to Missouri then, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, a former Missouri coach, called on senior Rashad Madden. Madden missed not once, but twice — from 3-point range and from close — as Missouri stole a win at Bud Walton Arena.
Sixteen days later, Anderson needed a basket again. One make could stretch Arkansas’ lead to three. Put the foot on Missouri’s throat. Silence this place.
So once more, it's Madden with the ball at the top of the key, and it's Madden driving left and running into traffic.
It’s Madden making a beeline for the baseline, and it's Madden throwing one foot just a few inches too far and stepping out of bounds.
The Tigers, once again, got the stop they desperately need.
Everyone knows it’ll be Clarkson or Brown, but nobody knows which, because it really doesn’t matter. Missouri needs just one basket, and it has an entire possession to get one of the two best scorers in the country to score.
But as soon as the ball is inbounded, one of them decides to watch.
Clarkson, having inbounded to Brown, sees Mardracus Wade inches from his face and stops. Wade is in "lockdown" mode, "deny Clarkson" mode, "don't-let-him-beat-us" mode.
So Clarkson doesn’t fight it. He just stops, leaving himself stranded in the backcourt, an island cut off from the chain.
Brown looks puzzled. Everyone looks puzzled. Why isn’t Clarkson following the play? Why is he just standing there?
“I made the decision to stay back because then there would be nobody to help on Jabari’s drive,” Clarkson will say. “It was just kind of instinct.”
Clarkson's instinct turns the game’s most critical moment into a four-on-four.
Brown still has two defenders converge on him when he spins right in the paint and throws up a floater, but he didn’t have three. This late in a season that has been filled with double and triple teams, Brown is unfazed.
His floater drops in, and the Tigers go up with seconds to go. Again.
Arkansas takes a timeout, and finally, Clarkson moves. He jaunts toward the celebration in the team huddle.
As the fray comes to an end, Missouri coach Frank Haith calls a timeout of his own.
In a moment like this, the clock can’t stand still long enough.
They’re still standing, all 12,362 of them, as Madden again tries to give Anderson what he needs.
This is how they drew it up. Madden will drive right, look for Michael Qualls in the corner, or take it himself. He’s hoping to make contact, to hear one more whistle.
Madden pushes past Clarkson down the lane and sidesteps him to reach the block. The dance shakes Clarkson, and Madden has open space — until he hits a wall.
Six-foot-10 with his hands in the air, Ryan Rosburg roots himself in position. Bodies hit bodies, the shot goes up, and everything else looks murky through the sea of arms, hands and heads as the clock hits three seconds.
The ball hits the back rim. It’s strong.
Ten people at the rim, and it's Arkansas freshman Bobby Portis who gets a finger on it. It isn’t enough.
The ball hits the hardwood. Bodies fly to the floor.
Four Tigers lay on the court as 12,362 still stand.
No time left. Missouri 86, Arkansas 85.
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.