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Tigers work through nerves in first round NCAA tournament game

Shooting woes in the first half allowed No. 14 seed Cornell to hang around, but the Tigers' athleticism and defensive pressure helped them earn a ticket to the second round.
Friday, March 20, 2009 | 5:24 p.m. CDT; updated 6:44 p.m. CDT, Friday, March 20, 2009
Missouri guard J.T. Tiller leaps out of bounds chasing a loose ball against Cornell.

BOISE, Idaho — Entering Friday's opening round game against Cornell, none of Missouri's top 13 scorers had ever played in the NCAA Tournament.

The Tigers showed their nerves early, shooting 2-for-12 from three-point range in the first half.

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But once they started to break a sweat, the Tigers calmed down. After all, it was just basketball.

"It's going to be nerves every time you step on the court," freshman guard Kim English said. "Once you throw the ball up, it's the same game you've been playing your whole life and it's the same game you play every day in practice."

It helped that Missouri coach Mike Anderson stuck with the basics in preparing his team for the tournament. The Tigers didn't have any tricky strategies or complex schemes for attacking the Big Red. They just relied on their effort for a 78-59 win.

"You know there is going to be some nerves going, but for our guys I think things have been pretty simple for them," Anderson said. "All I want them to do is bring the energy and defense. I think the rest will take care of itself."

Once they settled in, the Tigers stopped worrying about the significance of the game and simply used their drastic advantages in speed and strength.

It was Missouri's first win in the tournament since 2003 and tied a school record with 29 wins on the season.

Senior Leo Lyons said he was a little nervous before his first career NCAA Tournament game. Because of a combination of his nerves and the altitude in Boise, Idaho, he felt winded a couple minutes into the game.

Then he took a shot to the groin. Lyons limped off the floor just two minutes into the game with his team trailing 5-2.

But Lyons was able to catch his breath and overcome his nerves while on the bench. When he came back on the floor, Lyons looked like a player with several years of NCAA Tournament experience.

On several occasions, Lyons directed traffic on offense, instructing his teammates to cut, set a screen or come to the ball. And he contributed more than his leadership, finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds.

"Leo had it going on tonight," Anderson said. "He's come a long way, and he played one of his better games, I thought in a while, tonight."

Junior guard Zaire Taylor was the only Tiger who said he didn't feel nervous before the game. Before such an important moment, he worried he should have worried.

"I actually felt the least amount of butterflies I felt all season. It kind of shocked me," Taylor said. "I was trying to get myself nervous a little because I felt I was too cool."

The only player on the roster with tournament experience entering Friday was Mike Anderson Jr., who played in two tournament games at the University of Alabama-Birmingham before following his father to Missouri. Anderson Jr. played one minute Friday.

Missouri will play No. 6-seed Marquette on Sunday in the second round. The last time the Tigers appeared in the NCAA Tournament, in 2003, Marquette eliminated them in the second round, 101-92 in overtime.


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