Any loss to Kansas is disappointing, but Missouri found a way to make Sunday’s loss more frustrating.
The Tigers made 19-of-32 attempts, 59 percent, from the free-throw line, significantly lower than its 72 percent season average. The Tigers missed the front end of three one-and-one opportunities in the second half, spurring a 9-0 Kansas run that gave the Jayhawks a 77-67 edge with less than five minutes left.
If the Tigers had made four more free throws and equaled their season average, they could have won the game. Instead, the Jayhawks prevailed 84-82 and handed Missouri a loss in the last regular season game played at Hearnes Center.
The Tigers had been strong from the line, ranked second in the Big 12 Conference entering the game. Occasional lapses have doomed several games, though, including forward Rickey Paulding’s 6-of-12 effort in a 75-69 overtime loss to Texas on Jan. 20.
Losing at the free-throw line makes everything more difficult, but Paulding said the team’s struggles there did not become clear to him until after the loss.
“Afterwards, when you think about the game – missing free throws and missing shots is part of the game,” he said. “We were still in a position to win, but they made two huge shots and that was the difference.”
Despite a career-high 37 points, center Arthur Johnson’s 11-of-17 mark from the line was the biggest culprit. Johnson missed more shots at the line than he did from the field, where he was 13-of-17.
Johnson had few words on the subject after the loss, offering that he “(likes) winning basketball games” but that his free throw difficulties did not make the loss harder to accept. Guard Jimmy McKinney supported the center and said he was impressed with his play.
“He gave everything he had and left it all on the floor,” McKinney said. “That’s life. You just have to move on. I’m gonna ride his back and he’s gonna be my leader.”
Guard Jason Conley had perhaps the biggest miss of the night. After driving, scoring a layup and drawing a foul, Conley’s free throw could have tied the game at 79 with 1:06 left. Conley, a 79 percent free-throw shooter, missed the shot and the Jayhawks maintained a slim lead.
After pregame ceremonies honored the Tigers’ four seniors, a lack of focus could have disrupted the Tigers’ mind-set at the line. The team had conflicting views of that scenario.
“We were focused,” guard Thomas Gardner said. “It’s just free throws. We have to continue to be focused at the line and have confidence to knock them down.”
Guard Josh Kroenke, one of the four seniors celebrated before the game, saw it differently.
“It basically comes down to a lack of concentration,” Kroenke said. “All of us can shoot it, it’s just a matter of us getting up there with confidence and knocking them down. Unfortunately for us, it just didn’t go in for us today.”
Despite their misses, the Tigers had a chance to win the game in the final seconds. A made free throw or two sprinkled throughout the game, could have turned the result around.
“We missed a couple free throws,” Gardner said. “They made some great plays.”
LEE, MILES WIN AGAIN: Kansas guards Michael Lee, Gardner’s cousin, and Aaron Miles, both Gardner’s teammates at Jefferson High in Portland, Ore., hold bragging rights this year.
After the Jayhawks won 65-56 on Feb. 2 in Lawrence, Gardner needed a win Sunday to even the score. The Tigers fell two points short and Gardner dropped to 0-2 against his former teammates.
“I had another great time out there,” Gardner said. “I wish we could have gotten the win and evened the series up, but Aaron made a tough shot down the stretch with a hand in his face. Everybody knows his 3-point percentage, but he went and hit a huge shot like he did last year.”
Miles’ shot last year, a heave at the shot-clock buzzer, propelled the Jayhawks to a 79-74 win on March 9 at Hearnes Center. He made another Sunday, giving the Jayhawks an 82-80 lead with 21 seconds left. Miles finished with 15 points and eight assists.
Gardner scored six points with one rebound. Lee scored one point and two rebounds.
Gardner could get revenge later this week. If the Tigers defeat Texas A&M in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday, they will face Kansas in the quarterfinals Friday. Missouri beat Kansas 68-63 in the semifinals last season.
RECRUITS VISIT: Glen Dandridge, a 6-foot-6 swingman from Durham, N.C., and Tyler Hansbrough, a 6-foot-8 forward from Poplar Bluff, watched the game from behind the Missouri bench.
Dandridge signed with Missouri in November and is one-fourth of the Tigers’ 2004 incoming class. Hansbrough is a junior and is one of the nation’s top big men. Missouri, Duke and North Carolina, among others are pursuing him.