COLUMBIA — The Missouri men’s basketball team was forced to play in conditions it wasn’t used to Wednesday night against Savannah State at Mizzou Arena.
An announcement at the start of the game summed up just how different this contest was going to be from other Missouri home games.
“Will all Tiger fans please move down to fill up the rest of the stadium,” came the plea over the stadium's loudspeakers.
Thanks to an late afternoon snowstorm that blew through Columbia, Missouri played in front of just 3,394, its smallest crowd of the season. The crowd was often so quiet it seemed like the team wasn’t playing in front of anybody. Missouri (12-3), a team that relies on its home fans to energize its pressing and trapping defense, struggled to adapt early against Savannah State (5-12) and led by just three points at halftime.
Missouri eventually pulled away in the second half for a 74-45 victory in its last nonconference game of the season, but only after slogging through the first half.
“I think that we feed off a crowd to a certain extent," Missouri guard Marcus Denmon said. "We come out with the same mindset to get after them on defense. But sometimes, when you have the crowd behind you, it's not so much us, but it has an affect on the people with the ball.”
Missouri opened the game with its worst half of the season at home. Without the energy of the crowd, Missouri went just 2-7 from the field to open the half and even trailed for a while. Missouri forward Laurence Bowers said the team had no energy because of the small crowd.
“It’s huge," he said. "We came out kind of flat, and we are team that kind of feeds off the crowd, but we have to learn not to."
Missouri coach Mike Anderson tried everything to energize his players. The starters were out of the game by the 14-minute mark, but the Tigers still struggled without the cheers of the crowd. The team made careless passes at half court and turned the ball over 10 times in the half. Each play was met with silence from the spectators, creating a library-like atmosphere.
“We like to play in front of people,” Anderson said. “I think it helps the way we play.”
Missouri was sluggish on defense as well, allowing 12 offensive rebounds to the much smaller Savannah State players. Anderson spent the majority of the half yelling at his team on the bench and even met with the players individually on the court to try and motivate them. However, Missouri still finished the half with its smallest lead at home this season, 28-25.
“We knew as a team that we needed to pick it up, offensively and defensively,” Safford said. “We started playing their game and playing at their pace.”
It took some yelling from Anderson at halftime to energize his sluggish players. Missouri opened the half causing two quick turnovers that seemed to wake up the silent crowd. The team used that boost to go on a 14-point run that featured 11 steals. Missouri senior J.T. Tiller said the speech woke up the team up and gave it the energy boost it needed.
“I think we just came out playing with a lot more intensity and we came out putting a lot more pressure on,” Tiller said.
Bowers said the experience from the first half taught them to not rely on the crowd for energy. Missouri has struggled without its home crowd this season. It has gone 0-2 on the road, struggling to replicate the same energy it has shown at home where it is undefeated this season. Bowers said Wednesday's game will teach Missouri to create its own energy, an important lesson heading into conference play, even though Saturday's Big 12 opener at Mizzou Arena against Kansas State has been sold out for several days.
“I think it taught us a lesson that we can’t come out flat and depending on the crowd,” Bowers said. “Because in away games we won’t have a crowd.”