They started the night coming in off the bench and ended it with all-tournament honors.
Marcus Denmon scored 21 points and Ricardo Ratliffe had 14 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the No. 11 Missouri men’s basketball team’s 83-71 win over La Salle in the championship game of the Cancun Challenge on Wednesday night at Aventura Palace in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. Denmon and Ratliffe secured spots on the all-tournament team and Denmon won the tournament's MVP award.
Missouri coach Mike Anderson was quick to point out that coming off the bench is not a bad thing. The team’s bench combined for 49 of Missouri’s 83 points.
“To me, Marcus Denmon is a starter. Ricardo Ratliffe is just like a starter. So, what it does, is give us more balance. You’ve got five guys coming out and five guys coming on,” Anderson said in his postgame radio interview.
For Ratliffe, coming in with the second unit is nothing new, but Denmon found himself out of the starting five for the first time this season. Instead, Anderson started junior guard Matt Pressey to give the Tigers a defensive-minded approach. This saved Denmon as on offensive leader in the second wave of players. Denmon didn’t know he was not a starter until minutes before the game began.
“At first when I found out I was coming off the bench it kind of bothered me, but I was just like I’m gonna stay positive,” Denmon said by phone.
Denmon’s positive approach paid off. The junior guard hit five 3-pointers while going 7-for-12 from the field. Time and time again, Denmon splashed in threes, one from deep beyond NBA range, to keep Missouri ahead.
When one of his shots rarely missed, Ratliffe was usually there to grab it. Ratliffe battled tirelessly against La Salle’s Aaric Murray in the paint, fighting for rebounds and frustrating Murray, a 6-foot-10 sophomore who is considered a prime candidate for the NBA.
“That was kind of my game plan," Ratliffe said by phone. "Coaches told he me was an NBA prospect, so I tried to be physical with him and kind of talk to him a little bit, take his head out of the game.”
Ratliffe’s approach worked. Murray fouled out of the game with only nine points, his lowest total of the season. Murray’s last foul was a technical, received after he and Ratliffe traded words.
Missouri used the second half to form and hold onto its lead. The score was 41-41 at the half.
Justin Safford led Missouri to start the game, scoring nine of Missouri’s first 10 points. The points came from both short and long distances for Safford, who scored inside on a pass from Michael Dixon before showcasing his long-range shooting ability with a 3-pointer on the next Missouri trip down the court.
Another Safford jump shot tied the game at 10, but then La Salle built an eight-point run. The Tigers battled back and the two teams traded leads back and forth.
Trailing 21-20, La Salle shifted to a zone defense, but the shift didn’t bother Missouri. After struggling to execute against Wyoming’s zone Tuesday night, the Tigers successfully found holes in the Explorers' defense, penetrating and finding the open man for the best shot. But, the Explorers took a page out of the Tigers’ playbook, often having the ball at the other end of the court before the net could stop swinging from Missouri’s freshly-netted shot.
“They shot real, real well in the first half,” Ratliffe said. “I honestly didn’t think it would last in the second half because they made some tough shots and were shooting real high percentage. It kind of faded off in the second half.”
La Salle’s Earl Pettis and Ruben Guillandeaux both scored 13 points for the Explorers, but their team’s near 10 percent drop in second-half shooting and 19 turnovers kept them from challenging Missouri late in the game.