COLUMBIA — Leo Lyons’ return to Missouri’s starting lineup on Tuesday went a lot like his season.
He came out strong, scoring six of Missouri’s first nine points and grabbing a big handful of rebounds (5).
Then Lyons clanked an easy layup off the front of the rim, was fouled on the second chance, missed two free throws and was promptly replaced by Darryl Butterfield.
This time, he bounced back, scoring 27 points on 12-of-13 shooting and grabbing 18 rebounds. But following another trend, Missouri lost another close game, a 75-73 battle with Oklahoma State that came down to the last possession. It is Missouri’s eighth loss in its past 12 games.
“It just came to the point at the end of the season when he took me out of the starting lineup, he just challenged me, and took me a little bit harder than I expected,” Lyons said. “He challenged me a lot and I started playing a lot harder, tried to get to the level he expected so he would put me back in the starting lineup.”
After three years with Lyons, Missouri fans know that his bounce-back isn’t always a given. Inconsistent play is what landed him on the bench to start the past nine games in the first place.
For every big game, Lyons has another game where he slumps, loses confidence, stops playing defense and lets his performance get into his head.
On Tuesday night, Lyons played like the star forward he was expected to be coming out of Coastal Christian Academy in Virginia. He drove hard to the basket, made some jump shots, rebounded everything in sight and even got his teammates involved.
“I thought tonight, both halves, he was focused,” Missouri coach Mike Anderson said. “He was really into the game. You could see it with his body language.”
So after a career night of scoring and rebounding on Tuesday, can Lyons come back strong against Baylor on Saturday?
“I’m not too much worried about it,” Lyons said. “I’m going to stay aggressive. If I don’t make the shots I don’t make the shots. But one thing I can control is getting on the rebounds and I’m going to try to do that a lot more.”
Some consistency now from Lyons would be as welcome now as it ever has been.
With forward DeMarre Carroll, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, mostly ineffective after re-injuring his right ankle Feb. 4 against Kansas, Missouri has been lacking much of a low-post presence throughout the Big 12 Conference season.
Carroll only played 14 minutes on Tuesday.
“He is a big part of our team,” Lyons said. “It makes us smaller on the rebounds and that’s why I think I have to step it up a lot. I mean we’re trying to adjust but we have still got to play.”
Lyons started the first 17 games this season, but games like a four-point, two-rebound performance against Iowa State on Jan. 16 have been the story of Lyons’ career at Missouri.
Anderson experimented with benching Lyons earlier in the season; he pulled the slumping Lyons after 12 minutes against Michigan State earlier this season. Lyons responded against Maryland the next day by scoring 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
After Iowa State, sitting Lyons down the stretch was no longer enough. Lyons came off the bench for the next nine games.
Lyons still played significant minutes off the bench and had some big performances, but he still lacked that consistency. In the past nine games, he has scored as many as 24 and as few as four. He had 10 rebounds against Colorado on Saturday but none against Texas Tech on Jan. 23.
“I think, as a coaching staff, our team, they have been asking him, ‘We need more out of you, Leo,’” Anderson said. “So, he stepped up and he played well.”