Tigers one win away from Big 12 title

Zaire Taylor helped the Tigers advance to Big 12 tournament finals by continuing his trend of making big shots this season.
Friday, March 13, 2009 | 11:46 p.m. CDT; updated 2:48 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 14, 2009
Missouri guard Zaire Taylor looks to drive to the basket against Oklahoma State in the semifinals of the Big 12 Conference tournament in Oklahoma City on Friday.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Zaire Taylor remembers practicing by himself as a kid.

As he dribbled, he'd count down. Five, four, three, two, one. He'd release the ball just in time to beat the imaginary buzzer.

If the shot went in, Taylor would celebrate in front of an imaginary crowd. If he missed, the countdown would start again. And again. And again.

After thousands of imaginary pressure situations, Taylor isn't nervous in the real ones. On the contrary, he loves the pressure.

"It's just a blessing and a good feeling," Taylor said. "Everybody has that feeling of wanting to be in that atmosphere, and as student-athletes on this stage we all get a chance to do it. It's what we live for."

Everyone might want to play important games, but few perform better in them than Taylor.

The junior guard from Staten Island, N.Y., has played his best basketball in clutch situations this season.

Twice, Taylor has made game-winning shots. On Feb. 4 at Texas, Taylor made a driving shot from the right side with five seconds left to beat the Longhorns. Five days later, Taylor made a jump shot from the right elbow with one second left to beat rival Kansas at Mizzou Arena.

That shot bouncing high off the rim, then the backboard and finally floating through the net is one of the defining images of the Tigers' resurgence this season.

"He's a gamer. The guy makes plays going down the stretch," Missouri coach Mike Anderson said. "But the great things about him, he's going to do the things defensively."

Friday night in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City, Taylor put on a performance in one of Missouri's most important games of the season. The Tigers won 67-59.

The crowd at the Ford Center was a swarm of Oklahoma State orange for what amounted to a road game for the Tigers. Missouri came out shooting terribly, but Taylor kept his team in the game.

He scored 10 of the Tigers 21 first-half points.

Taylor is usually a pass-first point guard. On the season, he is seventh on the team in scoring.

But with the Oklahoma State defense sagging off and daring him to shoot, Anderson told him to be more aggressive on offense.

"Coach had to tell me to shoot, and then once he told me, it made me feel that much more confident in my own shot just knowing that he believed in me," Taylor said.

Taylor is one of seven newcomers for Missouri this season. At times, his freshmen teammates have struggled on the road in hostile atmospheres. But Taylor only plays better when the crowd is against him.

Friday night, he scored a season-high 19 points to lead Missouri. Taylor's four highest scoring games this season have all come away from Mizzou Arena.

It was Taylor's second strong game in as many nights. On Thursday against Texas Tech, Taylor had eight points, seven assists and seven rebounds.

By the end of Friday's game, the masses of Oklahoma State fans sat quietly, stunned. An M-I-Z, Z-O-U chant led by a handful of Missouri fans was the only sound in the arena.

It was a sweet silence for the Tigers.

On Saturday night at 5 p.m., N0. 3-seed Missouri will take on No. 9-seed Baylor for the conference title.

"I know everyone didn't pencil this particular championship game in," Anderson said. "But it should be an exciting game to say the least."

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