COLUMBIA – Matt Zimmerman grabbed Miguel Paul before he could run off to the locker room.
With his hand on Paul’s back, Zimmerman stuck his mouth up against Paul’s right ear and told him how proud he was. Paul, his head tilted down at the floor, just smiled and enjoyed the moment he had been working toward for so long.
“We’ve been telling him, ‘It’s going to pay off for you,’” Zimmerman, an assistant coach for the Missouri men’s basketball team, said of Paul’s extra work in the gym after every practice. “But it hadn’t paid off yet. Today was the day it finally all came together for him.”
Paul played by far the best game of his career, scoring a game-high 15 points in Missouri’s 70-53 win against Nebraska in front of 15,061 at sold-out Mizzou Arena. The sophomore guard was a much-needed spark for a Missouri team that shot woefully all night after getting sucked into Nebraska’s slow, methodical half-court game.
At 6 feet, 1 inch and 172 pounds, Paul was one of the smallest players on the court. Yet he saved the passive, jump shot-shooting Tigers by aggressively driving to the basket, using his quick, bouncy step to blow past defenders, and taking the ball up while bumping into tall and thick obstacles.
“He was listening tonight to coach (Mike Anderson) because coach kept saying, ‘I want more attacks,’” Zimmerman said. “We were shooting a lot of jumpers … Coach is sitting over on the bench saying, ‘We’re not attacking enough. We’re not attacking enough.’ Miguel comes in. He starts attacking.”
Missouri started to pull away with seven minutes left after Paul drove strongly toward the basket, elevated and released a shot while getting sandwiched between two defenders. He banked in the shot, drew the foul, made the free throw and helped the Tigers finally dispose of the Cornhuskers.
“It was fun. It was OK,” Paul said, downsizing the significance of his performance. “Really, I like the assists more than scoring.”
Known this season mostly for his precise alley-oop passes to teammate Laurence Bowers, Paul didn’t have a single assist Saturday. But he wasn’t playing selfishly. He realized his team wasn’t finding a way to attack Nebraska’s sagged-in defense, and he was the solution.
“A lot of guys weren’t producing on the offensive end tonight, and Miguel Paul came up,” forward Keith Ramsey said.
Paul was the energy boost the lethargic Tigers needed. Anderson, defense always at the front of his mind, said he was more pleased with Paul’s activeness in guarding the Cornhuskers than his contributions on offense.
But Saturday’ surprise was Paul's scoring outburst in just 16 efficient minutes on the court. Paul averages just 3.6 points a game, but Saturday he took full advantage of what Zimmerman says separates him from being just an average guard — his speed and ball-handling.
“He’s quick as a hiccup,” said Zimmerman, who said Paul’s strong game against Illinois was the start of his renewed confidence and extra practice time. “He’s one of our best ball-handlers. We get in ball-handling drills and when we’re doing attacks, a lot of times we’ll put him in the front of the line because he’s a good example. He shines in that stuff.”
But it’s mostly been during practice. Paul, rated one of the nation’s top 15 point guards coming out of Kathleen High School in Lakeland, Florida, has had to battle for playing time in Anderson’s deep rotation, often spending the good majority of games on the bench.
“People forget, these guys come to a major program like Missouri, these were the studs at their high school,” Zimmerman said. “They were the best. They played all the time. They got all the accolades. Now, they come here and they’re fighting and clawing just to get some minutes. And you’ve got to mesh all that together and hope attitudes stay good, and his attitude has. And it paid off for him today.”
After Zimmerman let go of him after the game, Paul was run down and mobbed by Ramsey, who grasped the little guy’s head in his palm.
“I said that’s the way to step up,” Ramsey said.
Paul’s name will be the one etched into Saturday’s win.
“He’s been waiting for a long time,” Bowers said. “He’s always been able to produce. It was just a matter of getting coach to trust him. And I think tonight that he showed coach he’s capable of being out there for a long period of time.”