KANSAS CITY — From Jason Conley’s viewpoint, there was no question it was going in. Almost everyone else in Kemper Arena agreed.
“As soon as I looked up it was straight on line and I went, ‘Oh, my God,’” Conley, Missouri’s senior guard, said.
Nebraska’s Joe McCray attempted a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left that was almost halfway through the net before it decided to rattle out, sending a chorus of “oh’s” across the arena.
After it rimmed out, McCray collapsed to the floor and No. 8 Missouri celebrated its 70-67 win against No. 9 Nebraska on Wednesday in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament.
“I thought it was good,” said McCray, who finished with 18 points. “I shot it and it rimmed out, (that) kind of hurt.”
The Tigers (16-15), who beat the Cornhuskers (14-14) for the third time this season, will play No. 1 Oklahoma at 11:30 a.m. today.
The win bolsters Missouri’s NIT hopes. A .500 record or better is needed to get an invitation. Nebraska still holds an outside chance.
“Or team competed down to the last second,” Nebraska coach Barry Collier said. “I think our team certainly wants to play and we would love that opportunity (to play in the NIT), but that’s in other people’s hands.”
McCray’s jumper was one of two chances the Cornhuskers had to send the game to overtime. The Tigers handed Nebraska the first one.
With less than 30 seconds left and Missouri leading 69-67, guard Jimmy McKinney was dribbling at the top of the key when teammate Linas Kleiza approached to set an on-ball screen on McKinney’s man.
The play was designed for Kleiza to set the screen, turn the corner and get the ball.
“The whole arena knew we were trying to get the ball to Linas,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “That’s where the ball needed to go.”
But before Kleiza could set the screen, McKinney picked up his dribble and threw a lazy pass in Kleiza’s direction.
Bronsen Schliep intercepted the pass, went the other direction and Nebraska called a timeout with 24 seconds left.
“I picked up my dribble, which I shouldn’t have done and I telegraphed the pass,” McKinney said. “I was frustrated at the moment but I had to get over it and go back on defense and make sure they don’t score.”
Luckily for Missouri, the rim wasn’t kind to Nebraska on multiple occasions.
With 11 seconds left, Jason Dourisseau, who scored a team-high 20 points, attempted a jumper from the right side of the free-throw line that banked off the backboard, hit the front of the rim and rolled off. Kleiza secured the rebound with nine seconds left and was fouled.
“That was a big play,” Conley said. “He was hot and when he gets in that area he can do a lot of work.”
Kleiza had been a perfect 10-for-10 from the line, but he opened the door for McCray’s last-second attempt when he missed the first free throw. He made the second to give Missouri a three-point lead.
“I just knew he was going to make the second one because he just doesn’t miss two free throws in a row,” Conley said.
The close finish was anything but expected. As the second half got under way, it seemed like nothing could stop the Tigers and Kleiza, who finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds.
Kleiza scored 12 of Missouri’s first 14 points as it opened up a 46-30 lead with 13:39 left in the second half.
But Nebraska wasn’t done. It trimmed the lead to 51-45 with a 15-5 run with 10:37 left.
“Sometimes when you get a lead like that early you know there’s going to be a run,” Snyder said. “We were not able to extend that lead. I thought we let up a little bit with our defense, but they just made an adjustment, spread the floor and started driving us. I think a lot of credit goes to Nebraska.”
Throughout the season, Snyder has said Missouri must find its identity on the defensive end and it did that in the first half. The Tigers held the Cornhuskers to 35 percent shooting, had seven steals, forced 10 turnovers and opened up a 32-25 halftime lead.
Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson was in attendance for the entire first half and McKinney said the Tigers will need to have a similar start against the Sooners today.
“We have to make sure that we start on defense,” McKinney said. “If we start on defense and make it tough for them, I think we’ll be all right.”