COLUMBIA — Zaire Taylor couldn’t help but point out the coincidence.
Earlier in the first half of the Missouri men’s basketball team's game against No. 11 Kansas State on Saturday, Kim English told Taylor to shoot the open 3-point looks because the Wildcats were only defending the drive. Taylor, who had only attempted one 3-pointer all game, told English he was going to wait.
And he did wait, until the last 30 seconds with the game tied at 66. After a 3-pointer by Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen, Taylor immediately took the inbounds pass and dribbled up court. After a simple crossover dribble, he did exactly what he said he was going to do. He lifted the ball over the two defenders and with a simple flick of the wrist the ball swished through the hoop to put the Tigers ahead for good on the way to a 74-68 victory over the Wildcats in their Big 12 Conference opener at Mizzou Arena.
“It was just the shot that was available,” Taylor said. “They were playing under the screen all day on me.”
The 3-pointer is another winning shot in Taylor’s collection. He made a last-second jump shot that won the game at home last season against Kansas, and he scored the winning layup last season at Texas. He has developed such a knack for hitting those shots he called himself Zaire “Big Shot” Taylor during graduation. Saturday's winning shot proved Taylor’s clutch capabilities.
“It’s just the attitude he has. He wants to be the one to take that shot because that is part of his game now,” Missouri guard J.T. Tiller said. “You need people like that on your team so you can come through in the clutch.”
The team has gained such a confidence in Taylor’s last minute heroics, that it is more surprised if he misses. During pickup games, Taylor is counted on to break the ties. Tiller said the thought of him missing the winning shot never even crosses his mind.
“No, Zaire, that’s Big Shot,” Tiller said. “If he would have missed it, I would have thought, ‘oh no, that’s not supposed to happen.”
That unwavering trust the Tigers have in Taylor has given him the confidence and swagger needed to be a leader. Making the shots helps too, of course.
“I think honestly, it gives others a confidence in you, but not yourself,” Taylor said. “When you feel that trust from coach or teammates, then I think it does help you. The actual shots don’t, I think it’s just knowing that people trust you.”
Saturday, Taylor also proved his worth on defense at the end of games. After hitting his shot, he immediately told his teammates that he would be the one to guard Pullen. Taylor was like a blanket on Pullen, forcing him to shoot a contested 3-point shot that fell short of the rim.
“That just shows how much of a leader he was,” Missouri forward Laurence Bowers said. “We all just jumped on his back during that time because we were like ‘man you hear this dude and the tone of his voice saying that?’”
Taylor said there isn’t much thought that goes into his last-second heroics. Instead, it is just instincts, and years of imitating Michael Jordan on the playground. Missouri coach Mike Anderson said those instincts are important for the team.
“I think when the opportunity presents itself, he’s been able to step-up and knock it down,” Anderson said. “Some guys thrive on that, and I like those guys that make big plays.”
Now Taylor will try and take his heroics to No. 22 Texas Tech on Wednesday. Taylor said the victory showed Missouri (13-3, 1-0) can compete with anybody in the Big 12, but they need to prove they can win on the road. The Tigers are 0-2 away from Mizzou Arena, but Taylor said hopefully the confidence they gained from the win can help them.
“It shows that we can compete against the better teams in conference, but now we got to do it on the road and against some of the better teams in the nation at that,” Taylor said. “Once we do that then we can really become a better team.”