Tigers coming together on, off court

Saturday, February 14, 2009 | 4:17 p.m. CST; updated 6:34 p.m. CST, Saturday, February 14, 2009

COLUMBIA — The Missouri men's basketball team is a happy bunch.

After the Tigers' 70-47 win Saturday against Nebraska, players stuck around afterward to sign autographs, give hugs and take photos with fans.

Players took pictures with members of Zou Crew, the student cheering group, who had made Valentine's Day posters. The signs read, "Kiss Me Kimmie," "Love Me Lyons" and "DeMarry Me Carroll."

Coach Mike Anderson and forward Leo Lyons, who was suspended earlier in the season, shared a laugh and a smile outside the locker room after the game.

Lyons had nagged Anderson earlier in the season about letting the senior shoot a pair of technical free throws. Anderson gave in Saturday, and Lyons made both shots.

"I thought Leo played well," Anderson said. "You notice he had a little smirk when he looked at me when he made those free throws."

After off-court incidents and egos defined last season, the current Tigers have developed a strong unity. Anderson has called his squad "the ultimate team."

"I think they like one another," Anderson said. "They want to represent Missouri in a first-class way on and off the floor."

On the court, the No. 17 Tigers share the ball unselfishly, ranking second in the country in assists per game. Saturday, Missouri had 18 assists on its 25 baskets.

The Tigers used a team effort on defense to hold Nebraska to 29 percent shooting. Nine different Tigers had at least one steal.

For the second time this season, Nebraska crammed its defense into the paint to take away Lyons' scoring. In the first meeting, the Tigers tried for force the ball into the post anyway. They were too reliant on Lyons and forward DeMarre Carroll.

Saturday was different. Nearly every player on the Tigers roster made a positive contribution. Rather than try to force the action, Lyons focused on other aspects of the game. He finished with his third double-digit rebounding game of the season.

Freshman guard Kim English said the Tigers' team play on the floor is a result of their close bond away from basketball.

"Our friendships off the court, I always say, translates to unselfish play on the court because we always want to see our guy, our friend, get a block or a dunk or a steal," English said. "It's just fun to play with your friends. We're just a bunch of college friends playing basketball."

Lawrence says this is the closest he has been with a group of teammates during his four years on campus.

"We're buddy-buddy in the locker room, outside of the court, but in practice we get after it every day," Lawrence said.

Good chemistry on this year's team was far from a guarantee when the Tigers entered the season with seven new players.

Early season trips to Canada and Puerto Rico helped the team bond. Spending eight weeks together before school started brought players together as well.

"We just kind of jelled automatically," English said.

According to Lawrence, the winning attitude of the young players immediately earned the older players' respect.

"I think these guys are just great guys. They're great character guys. We knew we didn't have to worry about them getting in trouble outside of basketball," Lawrence said. "They want to be here. They want to be Missouri Tigers."

The team's shared goal, of winning a national championship, also brings players together.

"It would be stupid to want to have 20 wins," English said, "We want to win the national championship. That's why we lace them up every day."

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