COLUMBIA — Even when Zaire Taylor’s winning jumper against Kansas caromed high off the back of the rim, his teammates say they never doubted him.
Senior DeMarre Carroll was fighting Kansas’ Cole Aldrich for a rebound just in case he needed a quick putback, but he said he had confidence in “Big Shot Za.” Senior Matt Lawrence said he felt the shot was destined to fall in front of the home crowd.
Nebraska (15-7, 5-4 Big 12) at No. 17 Missouri (21-4, 8-2)
When: Saturday, Feb. 14 at 12:30 p.m.
Where: Mizzou Arena
TV: KMIZ/Channel 17
Radio: Tiger Radio, KBXR/102.3 FM
“When it hit the rim, I actually foresaw it hitting the rim, bouncing up, going off the backboard and going in,” Lawrence said. “It was just kind of the way that game was played at the end, how many stops we had, I just had a great feeling it was going in.”
Of course, Taylor’s shot did exactly that before barely grazing the net as it fell through the cylinder. It’s the way things have been going lately for the Tigers. Missouri enters Saturday’s home game against Nebraska with a four-game win streak, and victories in eight of its past nine games.
Since a 56-51 loss in the conference opener at Nebraska, the Tigers are 3-0 in games decided by four points or less. Entering this season, coach Mike Anderson was 3-15 in games decided by five points or less.
“I think we’re finally jelling and we’re finally coming together as a team and winning close games,” Carroll said. “That means you’ve got to come together more as a team and I think we’re not really trying to go one-one, we’re trying to go as a team.”
Lawrence and Carroll have both been here since Anderson arrived, and they say the difference in close games is the team mentality, as opposed to one player wanting to win the game by himself.
“If you look at us now, we’re huddling up after every free throw on the line,” Lawrence said. “We’re huddling up after out-of-bounds plays, after fouls, anything like that, and I think it just shows how much we’re together at the end of the game, how we think we’re going to win the game at the end if it’s close and how we have confidence in each other.”
Carroll is Missouri’s leading scorer with 17.3 points per game, and he’s done his part leading the Tigers in pressure situations. But so far at the end of close games, he hasn’t gotten many chances.
“At the end of the game, whoever has the big shot or has the mismatch is the person to go to,” Carroll said. “Sometimes, I go out there knowing I’m the leading scorer. They focus so much on me, they leave guys like (Zaire) and them open, so it’s good he was able to knock down the shots.”
Although the basketball has been bouncing the right way recently, it hasn’t always been that way for this team. Marcus Denmon missed an open three-pointer that would have tied the game with two seconds left at Nebraska, and Anderson still hasn’t forgotten how Taylor, Lyons and Carroll missed 8-of-10 free throws in the final five minutes of a 75-71 loss to Xavier in November.
“They’ve learned from previous games,” Anderson said. “I mean, you go all the way back to Xavier, we didn’t finish that game off and so we’ve had some games where we got the lead and we scored a bunch of points and so you’re going to have some tests along the way.”
With six regular season games to play, Anderson still insists on taking the schedule one game at a time. But Carroll admitted thoughts of a Big 12 Championship and the postseason have been hard to completely avoid for the 17th ranked Tigers, who are virtually a lock for their first trip to the NCAA tournament in six years.
“Realistically, you hear when Coach says that,” Carroll said. “But in the back of your mind, you know that’s what you’re working for. We’re working for nothing less than a Big 12 title.”