Denmon, Tigers a force to be reckoned with

COLUMBIA, Mo. — A little more than two minutes were left Saturday at Mizzou Arena, and No. 4 Missouri trailed No. 8 Kansas 71-63. Missouri senior guard Marcus Denmon dribbled strong toward the baseline, drove past the Jayhawks’ Travis Releford before leaning into national player-of-the-year frontrunner Thomas Robinson under the basket.

As Denmon tumbled toward the ground, drawing a foul in the process, he powered a shot with his right arm that bounced off the backboard and landed through the net. He made the free throw to cut the Tigers’ deficit to five.

The play inspired a rally and continued a personal resurgence.

In the next 68 seconds, he swished two contested 3-point attempts to give Missouri its first lead in more than 15 minutes.

The Tigers never trailed again, beating their archrival 74-71 to earn a share of the Big 12 Conference lead with Baylor and Kansas.

Denmon walked off the court to screams from Missouri students. His performance and game-high 29 points made him the night’s star.

Denmon said Missouri takes pride in remaining composed late in the game.

“I think I’m around a bunch of winners,” he said.

Missouri’s winning attitude would not be possible without Denmon, who has drawn Big 12 and national player-of-the-year considerations in what is becoming a career-best season. He leads the Tigers with an average of 18 points per game, but those around the program say his contribution goes beyond anything captured in a box score. His quiet but effective leadership style is a key reason why Missouri remains a threat to win its first Big 12 regular-season title with seven games left.

Early predictions suggested Denmon’s season was possible — a year after earning 61 assists and averaging 16.9 points per game, both career highs. In October, he was named a first-team preseason All-Big 12 selection and became the first Missouri player to earn the status since Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson in 2004. In November, he was one of five Big 12 players named to the Naismith Award preseason watch list, joining Robinson, Texas A&M’s Khris Middleton and Baylor’s Quincy Miller and Perry Jones III.

Denmon began his senior season playing in a way that justified those preseason honors. He scored at least 20 points in three of Missouri’s first four games, including a then-season-high 26 in a victory over Notre Dame on Nov. 21. By Missouri’s Big 12 opener against Oklahoma on Jan. 3, he had scored at least 20 in seven of the Tigers’ 13 non-conference games.

“When he became a senior, I think that’s when he realized the sands of the hourglass are moving — every game you play is one game closer to the end of your career,” said Gary Link, a former Missouri guard who serves as the Tigers’ radio analyst. “I think he wasn’t happy with the way the team played last year, and he wanted to take it upon himself this year to come in and be a very quiet leader. Players like that. Players love to play with a guy like Marcus Denmon because you don’t have to be a rah-rah kind of a guy to be a leader. You can go out on the floor and work hard in practice, which he does, and work hard in the games, which he does.”

Despite his commitment, Denmon found himself fighting through a mid-season slump. He scored a career-high 37 points in a loss to Kansas State on Jan. 7, but he was held to fewer than 20 in the next seven games before facing Kansas last Saturday. The stretch included a season-low six in victories over Iowa State on Jan. 11 and Texas on Jan. 30.

Questions about his struggles from the field became a focus Jan. 28 following a 4-of-15 shooting performance during a victory over Texas Tech at Mizzou Arena. That afternoon, Denmon slouched behind a microphone in a small room and spoke in a muffled tone that led one media member to ask whether the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Kansas City, Mo., native was sick. Denmon revealed he was.

But the health of Denmon’s game also was a concern. He completed a six-game stretch where he went a combined 22-of-68 shooting from the floor. He found other ways to produce during the dry spell. He gathered 37 rebounds and scored 40 points from the free-throw line. Yet, after beating the Red Raiders, Denmon said he would regain his touch by continuing to shoot.

“You continue to take good shots,” Denmon said then. “When you can score the ball, when you become a good shooter, you just continue to take good shots. Coach (Frank Haith) always tells me and the rest of the guys that if there’s a shot you’re working on and are comfortable taking, I want you to take it 100 percent of the time.”

The exchange was an insight into the trust between Haith and Denmon. During Denmon’s drought, the first-year coach chose to let the guard work through the challenge on his own. Haith knows the country’s best shooters sometimes strain late in the season, so he did not want Denmon to allow the slump to become a mental block.

Haith had reason to believe Denmon would regain his confidence. Denmon has shown growth each year. His scoring average jumped from six points per game as a freshman to 10.4 as a sophomore, a season in which he was one of the Big 12’s most-improved players. Following his career-best scoring totals last year, he was named to the first-team All-Big 12 squad.

But Denmon understands more is expected of him this season. Following the victory over Kansas, Denmon said a guarantee from Missouri senior guard Kim English inspired him to lead. Earlier, the scenario appeared bleak for the Tigers as they tried to earn their 13th consecutive victory at home. The Jayhawks led by six points with a little less than four minutes left, but English told his teammates during a timeout that “we’re going to win this game.”

Nearby, Denmon took the words to heart. Along with English, he considers himself a leader responsible for Missouri’s direction. He was disappointed with how the Tigers ended his junior season by losing five of their final six games before coach Mike Anderson left for Arkansas last March. As a result, he wants his final campaign in Columbia to be different.

So Denmon responded Saturday and what followed became the highlight of Missouri’s marquee home victory to date, a contest that Haith later called “a classic.”

A short time after he earned the 3-point play on the Robinson foul, Denmon received a pass from junior guard Michael Dixon and sank a 3-pointer in front of Kansas’ Conner Teahan. And less than a minute later, Denmon spotted up in the corner and made a 3-point attempt over Teahan’s outstretched left arm that gave the Tigers the lead for good.

About a two-hour drive to the west, Steven Stitzer, Denmon’s former coach at Hogan Prep in Kansas City, Mo., watched the game on television. To him, Denmon’s poise under pressure was a familiar sight. He watched Denmon lead Missouri’s rally, one that caused Mizzou Arena to become as loud as some have ever heard the seven-year-old building, and thought, “That’s what he did for me.”
“Those shots with the people in his face — he was the same way in high school,” Stitzer said.  

Denmon walked off the court Saturday, more mature compared to those younger years but with his vision for the game unchanged. White confetti fell from the ceiling. Missouri’s pep band played its alma mater. Students swayed. Some in Mizzou Arena and elsewhere began to envision the Tigers as a possible No. 1 seed.

The quiet but effective leader disappeared into a locker room, the celebration in Columbia only beginning. Work remains, including a rematch against Kansas on Feb. 25 at Allen Fieldhouse. But for one night, Denmon looked like the heart of one of the nation’s elite teams.