BUFFALO, N.Y. – T.J. Cleveland felt it was time to speak up.
“I just put my two cents in, that’s all,” said Cleveland, an assistant coach for the Missouri men’s basketball team. “I don’t talk very much, that’s Coach (Mike) Anderson’s job. But there was something that I felt I needed to say.”
After the Tigers finished their pregame meal – chicken on Friday – Cleveland took his turn as each coach was given a chance to speak to the assembled players.
Given his message’s effectiveness, he might consider motivational speaking.
His words, repeated by senior J.T. Tiller: “If you don’t want your season to end right now, you might want to be vocal. You might want to talk up.”
“That’s pretty much how he said it, but in a more firm tone,” Tiller said.
It was ironic, a soft-spoken coach urging his soft-spoken seniors to lead in a way they hadn’t for most of the year.
“It’s just not something we’re used to doing,” Tiller said. “We’re really more of lead-by-example type (seniors).”
But Cleveland is no yapper, either.
“It ain’t hard talking,” senior Keith Ramsey said.
They’ve been hearing it all season, that they need be more vocal, Tiller said. But it wasn’t until Cleveland’s out-of-character, yet motivating, talk that they felt responsible to motivate themselves.
And you could see it, and usually hear it, on the HSBC Arena floor during No. 10 seed Missouri’s 86-78 win over No. 7 Clemson on Friday afternoon. Missouri will play No. 2 West Virginia at about 1:40 p.m. Sunday.
After the ball was knocked out of bounds, Tiller screamed the number for the inbounds play: “One!”
And that's when he normally would have gone silent. But he kept going.
“Come on! Break hard.”
After hitting Laurence Bowers with an alley-oop pass that produced the most exciting of Bowers’ three dunks, Tiller crouched down and pumped his arm. And he yelled.
“When somebody tells you your season could be over if you don’t talk up, then you want to do everything in your power to give you the best chance at winning,” he said.
Sounds simple. And clichéd. But Missouri’s trio of seniors – Tiller, Ramsey and Zaire Taylor – had never let loose this much emotion and instructed their teammates so freely during a game.
“It’s a little different from having DeMarre (Carroll) and Leo (Lyons) and Matt (Lawrence) and those guys because they were vocal all the time, talking all the time,” Cleveland said. “But these guys are more quiet and try to lead by example.”
Few can match the intensity of the outwardly passionate Carroll, but Tiller & Co. came close Friday.
After connecting with Bowers for another dunk, this time on a three-quarters court pass, Tiller pounded his chest with his fist, Carroll-like.
Ramsey, typically even more subdued than Tiller, screamed and swung his right arm across his body while walking to the free throw line after getting fouled on a layup.
Both had reason to rejoice Friday. Ramsey had a career-high 20 points and even hit a rare 3-pointer. Tiller scored 10 and had five steals. And Taylor, despite a quiet game, made two key free throws at the end of the game.
During pauses in the game, the Tigers got together more often than usual to chat.
“If you noticed today, we huddled up a lot, and it made a big difference,” Bowers said.
The first one to say something in the huddle? Always a senior, Bowers said.
It took a whole season, and some inspiration from an unlikely source, but they finally spoke up.
“We have been told like the whole season to do it,” Tiller said, laughing, “but it was more emphasized this time.”