COLUMBIA — Christine Flores was in the middle of an interview, and Laurence Bowers was walking toward his locker room. In an attempt to distract her, Bowers reached out to playfully poke Flores on the shoulder. She anticipated the nudge, deflecting his hand with a swoop of an arm and a smile. The block seemed so easy for her. It’s a gift she and Bowers, Missouri basketball’s top two shot blockers, share.
Bowers and Flores have been the rulers of rejection all season for the Missouri men's and women's basketball teams. Rarely is there a game when the junior forwards don’t end up with at least one blocked shot.
SATURDAY'S MEN'S BASKETBALL GAME
Oklahoma Sooners (13-12, 4-5 Big 12)
at No. 20 Missouri Tigers (18-6, 4-5 Big 12)
WHEN: 12:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KCMQ/96.7 FM
TV: KMIZ (ABC)
The Missouri men's basketball team is celebrating Love College Hoops Week during its game Saturday against Oklahoma by handing out headbands to fans before tipoff at Mizzou Arena. The MU Bookstore is also selling T-shirts and foam fingers that say “I Heart College Hoops.”
Love College Hoops Week supports the fight against cancer and is an offshoot of Coaches vs. Cancer, which was created by former Missouri coach Norm Stewart, who is a cancer survivor. Since it was created in 1993, Coaches vs. Cancer has raised about $50 million for cancer research.
This week, more than 50 campuses across the country, including nine schools in the Big 12 Conference, are participating in College Hoops Week.
A portion of the proceeds generated from the sale of Love College Hoops products will go to the American Cancer Society. In addition to merchandise sales, people can donate $5 to the American Cancer Society throughout the week by texting "COACH" to 20222.
SATURDAY'S WOMEN'S BASKETBALL GAME
Missouri Tigers (11-12, 3-6 in Big 12)
at Oklahoma Sooners (17-6, 7-3)
WHEN: 2 p.m.
WHERE: Lloyd Noble Center, Norman, Okla.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM
What makes them masters in the subject of swat? A unique mix of inherent ability, technique and teamwork are the ingredients that Bowers and Flores combine to proudly dish out the defensive stops.
Both Bowers and Flores say blocking shots comes naturally.
“It’s something you’re born with, I guess,” Bowers said.
They have been blessed with height, long arms and a respectable vertical jump, but a lot of basketball players have the necessary equipment. The key is putting it to use.
Flores noticed she had a knack for blocking shots in high school. She once blocked 15 shots in a game.
“When I was playing against girls who were a lot smaller, they just kept driving in," Flores said. "It’s fun because you get those big time, to-the-stands blocks, and those are the best ones.”
Bowers once blocked 12 shots in a high school game. He can still remember his best one. He curled his hand into a fist and punched the ball as it left an opponent’s hand. The ball sailed over the basket and over the bleachers that sat behind it. It flew freely until the wall of the gymnasium ended its trip.
“A lot of oo-hing and ahh-ing,” Bowers said, recalling how the crowd reacted to the play.
For Flores, blocks were no big deal.
“You come from high school when you’re the tallest person on the team, or I am at least. And anybody who came in, it was easy. It was put a hand up, and they weren’t going to get the shot off,” Flores said.
There are no easy blocks in college basketball. Opponents are bigger, and size advantages even out. A player has to learn to earn the blocks.
“When you come into college, you have to have the warrior-like mentality," Flores said. "You have to want it. If somebody is in that lane, it’s yours."
As juniors, Flores and Bowers have learned to combine their natural talents with hard work and the proper technique, transferring their skills from high school to the next level.
The two now lead their teams in blocked shots for the season. Bowers expected he would and focused his sights on a bigger goal.
“I blocked a fair amount of shots last year," he said. "I wanted to improve on every stat, every part of my game. Blocking shots, I knew I had a legitimate shot at leading the conference.”
With seven games left in the regular season, Bowers has already blocked 50 shots, two more than his total from last season. He is not far from his goal of leading the conference and ranks second in the Big 12 with 19 blocks through nine conference games. As of Thursday, he trails only Texas’s Tristan Thompson (24 blocks).
One of his biggest competitors is on his own team. Ricardo Ratliffe has swatted 17 shots in conference games and has 37 this season total. The combination of Bowers and Ratliffe is the main factor behind Missouri leading all Big 12 teams in blocks (5.54 blocks-per-game average).
Bowers said he has no interest in setting Missouri records for blocked shots. He said he is not a records kind of guy. He does know Arthur Johnson was Missouri’s best all-time shot blocker, and Johnson knows Bowers is a player on Missouri's team.
The two have never met, but their names are beginning to see each other in the Missouri men's basketball record book.
In a game Jan. 8 at Colorado, Bowers blocked eight shots, tying Johnson’s record for most blocks in one game.
Johnson played for Missouri from 2000 to 2004, and now plays basketball professionally in Turkey. He is the Tigers' all-time block leader with 245 during the course of his career. He set the eight-block record in a game between Missouri and Stetson in 2000.
“I remember it. It was working for me that night,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.
Bowers said he thinks he got shorted in Boulder, Colo. He said he had nine blocks. A referee dismissed one of the blocks after whistling Bowers for goaltending.
“I think it was because I came out of nowhere pretty much, and the referees weren’t expecting it," Bowers said.
The nature of the block in question highlights the difference between Bowers' and Johnson’s styles. If Bowers is a Missouri big man (6-foot-8, 210 pounds), then Johnson (6-foot-9, 268 pounds) was a Missouri huge man. He liked to play with his back to the basket. His blocks came the same way, results of squaring up in front of opponents. Those who had shots blocked by Johnson saw the obstacle they had to overcome as they made their attempts.
Victims of Bowers’ blocks are less likely to realize the danger. Bowers prefers a stealth attack, sometimes even catching the referees off guard with the speed at which he closes in on the shooter. He can block shots from the front but tallies up many from behind and from the side.
“If you’re a good player offensively, you can anticipate stuff," Missouri junior guard Kim English said. "He knows what other guys are going to do."
English is in his third season playing with Bowers. He and other guards have learned how to help set the stage for a Bowers' block.
“It’s a two-man deal. It’s not just me by myself. It’s the person who makes him alter his shot as well,” Bowers said.
If the guards can force a player to hesitate or change a shot, odds are Bowers has a chance to get to it. In a game, the process looks effortless because it is practiced every day.
“That gives me time to just wind back and get it," Bowers said. "That’s something we do in practice a lot."
Flores is also among the conference leaders when it comes to blocks. She has 49 blocks this season and 16 through eight conference games, which ties her for fourth place in the Big 12. Like Bowers, she is also popping up in the Missouri record book. Flores blocked seven shots in a game against Tennessee-Martin on Dec. 7, tying the single-game record set by Amanda Lassiter in 1999.
For Flores, the big blocks, the kind of blocks she used to get in high school, are still the most fun. But, she has learned when to go for the big one and when to keep it conservative.
“It’s a momentum builder," Flores said. "When you can get blocks, it’s exciting. You’ve got to be careful, though. It can get you in foul trouble."
If the fouls start to add up, she knows her approach has to change. She tries to keep her feet on the ground and her arms from swinging. She swaps the aggressive tactics for more traditional, straight-up defense.
It’s the fine line that every great shot blocker must balance.
“If I get some early fouls, I’m not going be as aggressive at blocking shots because I want out be out there. I know the longer I’m out there, the more I can do,” Johnson said.
All the players agree that a blocked shot sends a message. Ask them what that message says and their answers slightly differ but remain the same at the core.
“Get that blank out of here,” Johnson said, inserting his own censor.
“Home gym, home court, home floor, you don’t want them coming into the paint,” Flores said.
“Get that stuff out of here. Give me that. Block party,” Bowers said in a rapid-fire manner. “It kind of sucks the confidence out of the other team. It kind of makes them think about whether or not they want to shoot it.”
It’s a feeling that only members of the club can bask in. A feeling other players might get a few times over the course of the season but won't get to experience again and again, game after game.
Some of us will never know what it’s like at all. Bowers tries to offer a glimpse.
“When you’re playing pingpong, when you slam it, when you smash it, that’s what it reminds me of."